Change is constant, but its regularity is compounded by living in a world with higher levels of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA). As we know more, we innovate more, and as we innovate more, our knowledge creates further complexities. Effective training and development is perhaps the most effective way to both lead and sustain a culture of progress and innovation in VUCA environments.

For instance, the more we know about cars and trucks and engine-powered vehicles, the more we want to go into and explore space. Technology permits advances and gives us the false perception that we are not as far ahead as we could be. Fortunately, globalization allows nations to share knowledge, services, products and technology, keeping us on a level peg in many ways.

First of all, let’s go a bit deeper into VUCA itself.

What is VUCA?

V is for Volatility

We see volatility on the news every day: Crypto is volatile. Currency values are volatile. Emerging nations are volatile. What it means is that change is inevitable, but we cannot predict it. It makes it incredibly difficult to say exactly why the change has occurred.

U is for Uncertainty

Learning from the past to predict the future is not as easy as it once was. It often feels like the instability we sense going on in the world is encouraging its own further development. In the past we had good indicators for what was coming, now, we have little idea.

C is for Complexity

Cause and effect are broken. The world is getting ever more confused and dynamic, leading people to find changes and innovations hard to comprehend. If our actions no longer give us the desired results, should we continue to do them, and, what if we do the opposite instead?

A is for Ambiguity

Simply put, ambiguity is when you just aren’t sure. Many things are subjective, many more are ambiguous. Sometimes there just isn’t a right or wrong answer, and maybe several perspectives can have merit whilst not being overtly false or correct. When we can’t make a definitive assessment, we are experiencing ambiguity.

A Strategy to Succeed in VUCA Times

You organization needs a strategy to succeed in VUCA times. Here are four steps to get started:

  1. Take note of internal forces and external forces driving the VUCA environment.
  2. List the things you can change — and the things you can’t.
  3. On the external factor list, consider observable market changes and what drives them, such as customers, suppliers, new competitors, old rivalries and product or service substitutes.
  4. On the internal factor list, take stock of your company’s values, performance, knowledge and culture.

Remember that your strategy must first understand the internal factor and its capabilities for change and action before it can begin to work on solving external concerns, especially in VUCA times. Without acknowledging this, it’s like running into battle with no knowledge of the enemy, without protection and without knowing how many soldiers are fighting for you.

Any strategy you create cannot be vague. It must be detailed and targeted, with hard facts and timelines to keep things accountable. The strategy must work to reduce VUCA whilst accepting that it won’t happen overnight, but is a scaled process. The strategy must also be dynamic and ready to change at a moment’s notice if the information suggests you’re off-track.

The Importance of Agile

Most organizations are shaped like a pyramid, with power trickling its way downward. This traditional structure makes it very hard for a business to be agile when a single figure has an imbalanced share of the decision-making power. To redistribute power, make decisions more easily, and follow a certain direction, organizations must consider becoming flatter. To do this, leaders need to climb down and get closer to the action by remaining agile and flexible.

L&D’s Role

The learning and development (L&D) process never stops. If it did, we’d succumb to VUCA times and simply accept defeat. The reality is that real leaders and professionals double down to develop themselves when they face obstacles. Organizations who want to truly sustain and lead a culture of innovation despite VUCA, will look at three different types of training and development:

  1. Intercultural training: To understand different perspectives and behaviors in a way that may improve adaptability, creativity, and innovation can result in better analytical skills, fewer conflicts and better problem-solving, adopt intercultural training programs.
  2. Individual training: By training one person at a time, it’s more personalized, which can be immensely useful to leaders or potential leaders. Working on resilience, openness, attitude and strategy development can be key to bringing about new levels of personal success.
  3. Communication and soft skills training: We all know how important the role of communication plays in our personal lives. It’s the same for business, especially during VUCA. Strong communication and soft skills will help people to share their goals, expectations, progress, and more with their colleagues, both up and down the hierarchy.

You Need a Strategic Culture

Culture is king, but only when aligned with strategy. Changing a thriving company culture is one of the hardest things to do, and empires have fallen because they failed to adapt the culture to a changing world. Some cultural changes are easy to achieve, but others are tricky. In times of VUCA, culture change needs a lot of buy-ins, a lot of initiative, and it needs to be demonstrably responsible for meeting long term objectives. It also requires those in senior positions to truly reflect the values of this cultural change so that it is authentic and not just symbolic.

Once you have all of these things in place, sustaining a culture of innovation should be much easier, with more support and less friction.

Top tips for leading change in VUCA times

  • Communicate the desired vision: Celebrate milestones, publish successes (but never declare victory!) and keep people informed along the way without overloading them with information.
  • Demonstrate a sense of urgency : When people finally embrace change, they want it immediately. So, work fast to target some low hanging fruit and show how easy and positive change can really be.
  • Create a dedicated team for change: Ideally, these are ground-level employees, not desk-based senior management. You need to create a momentum of belief, and that’s much easier to do from the bottom-up.
  • Allow the action to be taken: Get rid of barriers, bottlenecks, and obstacles and make change easier to implement.

Embrace Uncertainty as Fuel for Innovation

When we don’t know something, we are uncertain. But it is in this mindset that we begin to look for solutions. If we knew everything and could do everything, there would be no such thing as uncertainty. So, if we reframe our minds to see uncertainty as a kind of juice for innovation and change, we will start to see how today’s problems become tomorrow’s solutions. Of course, things won’t always work as we’d like them to, but we often glean more information from a failure than a win.