Leading beyond a VUCA world … time for leaders to embrace the future more positively, their space to add value

December 28, 2018

Nearly two decades ago, military planners coined an acronym to capture the nature of an increasingly unpredictable and dynamic world. They called it VUCA—an environment of nonstop volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

The world today embodies VUCA more so than any era we’ve recently experienced.

Why do so many of us—individually and collectively—fail to imagine, let alone anticipate, the massive and disruptive changes that are unfolding? Driven by fast moving technologies and globalization, the pace of change is accelerating, our brains are struggling to keep up, and surprise, discomfort, and unrest are the result.

This is no anomaly. VUCA isn’t going away. Change promises to speed up, not slow down. To thrive in a world where “change is the only constant,” leaders need to replace old thinking with a new framework.

One simple way is to think of it more as an opportunity than a challenge

  • V from volatility to vibrant … consider the multitude of incredible opportunities
  • U from uncertainty to unreal … the ways in which physical is enhanced by digital
  • C from complex to crazy … the speed at which ideas are implemented and spread
  • A form ambiguous to astounding … the impact even the smallest entity can make

William Gibson famously once said, “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.” As leaders, how do we embrace the elements of the future that are here, and the ones that are just around the corner?

In times of increasing change and complexity, it can be difficult to envision bold new futures with any certainty. Our go-to strategies for thinking about the future typically start with the elements that are known, such as projecting out historic results to future performance, analyzing existing competitors, or focusing on executing near-term results.

What’s missing are systematic approaches to understanding and taking advantage of the unknown. This is why leaders need to embrace skills, practices and behaviors of futurists.

Every leader needs to be a futurist today.

Futurists don’t have secret powers to predict the future. They don’t have a Magic 8 Ball or special basket of fortune-cookie predictions. Rather, futurists discipline themselves to question the status quo. They regularly scan external trends, adjacent industries and underlying forces. They consider diverse perspectives. And they boldly tell stories about the future before all of the data is available to back it up.

This does not mean simply extrapolating today’s pace of change into the future. It means imagining new possibilities boldly and optimistically—and understanding they are quite likely to arise sooner than expected. Leaders will have to get equally comfortable with what can be known and with exploring what is unknown.

This is not how many leaders currently operate.

Today, leaders typically manage risk with a variety of analytic processes and frameworks that identify and quantify known variables. In most organizations, the future is primarily projected through numerical forecasts and spreadsheets, reinforcing a perspective that the world is an extension of what we know today, and that we can plug in some numeric formula to calculate quantifiable predictions.

The problem, however, is these forecasts rely on understanding current variables and existing trends. We see future events as a new version of past events, presuming the pace of change will move in a straight line. In reality, the line curves upward, and new variables—unforeseen technologies, for example—always enter the equation.

The result? Forecasts fall short. At best, we’re shocked, at worst disrupted.

As futurists, leaders need to get comfortable asking open-ended questions about unspoken assumptions to see new possibilities. They need to be curious about the future and blend imaginative practices of strategic foresight, futures backcasting, science fiction design and scenario planning into traditional business planning.

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