VICTORY at VUCA - how to lead in a VUCA world

Ship sailing into uncertain waters

By Past Master Lesley Wilson

At the beginning of our global pandemic Professor Bodhisattva Chattopadhyay from the University of Oslo published a video on Youtube in which he argued that science fiction fans are rarely surprised by anything, since they have already seen or experienced a scenario as a fictional narrative. Science fiction, horror and fantasy genres explore the apocalyptic. But despite a strong cultural stream of work in this area we were still caught unawares for the savage ravage of Covid-19. Watching a movie about the end of the world, clearly does not prepare us for it.

However, tucked inside the genre, is something very powerful that resides in all of us.  And that is the ability of humanity to invoke speculative and creative qualities to reimagine and reinvent in the face of a rapidly changing world. From imagination to market is the hallmark of the marketing mindset. Livery Companies, conventionally, might occupy what we traditionally call (as marketers) the ‘incumbent’ space. Incumbents are known to operate best in a world of linear, stable and predictable paths, relying on the past to inform the future and a conservative view of risk, their mission to do what we’ve always done. The only adjustment being, perhaps, to just do it better. Incumbents are not generally viewed as leading exponents of how to deal with disruption.

Covid-19, thanks to its extremities of reach and impact, has shaken every organisation from the inside out. In a VUCA world - ‘Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous’, the least likely victors have dug deep and found their future scenarios in a subtly different direction, almost because they have depth of heritage behind them. Livery Companies, like the Marketors’ Company, have found a rich seam of expertise and appetite for transformation that have confounded many, fooled by a casual gaze at external perceptions.

The key for leaders in a crisis situation is to be open and brave enough to tear up the plans and start again, trusting that the human capability for finding new ways will rise up.  And admitting that there are no right answers amidst so many unknowns. Through this unleashed approach, the organisation finds a heightened level of systems thinking and produces a new platform for debate, analysis and innovation.

The leader also has to plot -  not predict (predictions are the realm of psychics! ) - and go step by step, using data, eliciting as many diverse perspectives as possible, looking through varied analytical lenses, deploying gut feel, instinct, and calling on experience and emotional intelligence.  Contrary to popular opinion, this is also how Chess Grand Masters work. They look for the next best possible move that puts them in the best possible position for the potential next possible move of their opponent, given all the vagaries of the external environment and unchartered thinking. That is quite different to predicting an end game. And requiring an ability to suspend disbelief about change and progress and leaving any sense of the more conventional masculine form of command and control behind.

Recognising a VUCA environment and giving permission to think differently, people are encouraged to create something new, a prototype - try it out, get feedback, learn and adapt further and fast. In doing so, the leader paints a vision of the future that opens up new possibilities that life can in fact be very different to the past - and guess what,  it’s not bad, it’s good! The organisation starts to believe that it can broaden horizons, be aspirational, and find a new long-term perspective that is not at all a threat, but is something wonderful to pursue and embrace and will ensure its survival for a very long time to come.

About the Author

Lesley is Past Master of the Worshipful Company of Marketors and winner of the Martyn Davis 2015 Harvard Business School Advanced Management Programme bursary. Her marketing background is in the global telco sector and she currently works as an executive coach and mentor, non-executive director, advisor and trustee.