VUCA: driving the need for collaborative strategy

A brief introduction to this commonly used strategic leadership term

“The only constant in the strategic environment is the continuous acceleration of change …” *

What it is

VUCA is an acronym frequently used within the realm of Strategic Leadership, especially within the military. “VUCA” rhymes with Luka and describes an external environment that is filled with Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity:

  • Volatility refers to the rate of change of the environment. How quickly markets and customer preferences change, the pace of technological revolution, the sudden appearance of new competitors, unstable political environments, and so forth.

  • Uncertainty refers to the lack of predictability about the environment, and our place within it. The inability to see things coming or to know everything about a situation, and the difficultly in predicting the effects, and knock-on effects, of change.

  • Complexity refers to the multitude of forces at play in a situation: the large web of non-linear interactions and interdependencies operating in an environment. Complexity differs from uncertainly but can give rise to it due to the vast number of potential scenarios it generates.

  • Ambiguity is a form of uncertainty pertaining to unclear interpretation of information. Ambiguity arises from information that is incomplete, misinterpreted or distorted by factors such as cognitive bias, language or different perspectives.

Why it matters

Driven by forces such as rapid technological advancement, shifting axes of political and economic power, accelerating climate change, and highly polarised media, the world is becoming increasingly VUCA. COVID-19 was a VUCA event.

Recognition of this reality should change a leader’s posture. In VUCA environments no single individual has sufficient knowledge and situational awareness to adequately develop a coherent strategy.

Within VUCA environments, tasks must be accomplished collaboratively. Strategic leaders must develop the ability to collaborate, cooperate, and compromise. Leadership becomes a collective effort.

The ability to collaboratively scan the VUCA environment, make sense of it, and facilitate collective decisions in compressed timeframes is a core competency of future executives.

Learn more

Googling VUCA will turn up a reasonable Wikipedia page and some introductory articles by HBR and Forbes. However, the best material is hidden in the following declassified military texts. Both versions are worth a read.

*Shambach, Stephen A., ed., Strategic Leadership Primer, 2nd ed. (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, 2004) (PDF)

Gerras, Stephen J., ed., Strategic Leadership Primer, 3rd ed. (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, 2010) (PDF)

Image credit: maciej

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