The casual manner in which people throw around the acronym VUCA has long concerned me. The abbreviation stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous, and it has gained buzz-word popularity. The unfolding COVID-19 crisis emphasizes that these phenomena are no casual matters. Complexity is easy to grasp intellectually, but quite different to experience when you are in the middle of it. And that’s troubling, because leaders must now be more clear-headed than at most other times, as they risk causing severe damage by either overreacting or being too passive.
I would like to invite you to explore this risk with a magazine-like, but 100 percent serious, self-test. There are three simple questions, to each of which you can pick one of the following three answers: yes, maybe, or no. Complexity is not always intuitive, so the questions are accompanied by brief explanations.
Question 1: Are you ready to curb your animal spirit?
You are likely to have had strong emotions and bodily sensations as COVID-19 spread among more people, cities, and countries over the last few weeks. It is natural and human for this thread to cause your instincts to roar. You might be a frequent traveler, worrying about your next trip. You might engage with many others, and feel concerned about contagion. You might fear for the well-being of your family, friends, and colleagues.
Question 1 does not ask whether you have animal spirit, but how you relate to it. (“Animal spirit” is, by the way, a term used by economists to describe how we relate to economic upturns and downturns, making us react irrationally.)
To curb our animal spirit, we must be able to make a conscious choice in a difficult moment. To make conscious choices in such moments, we must be aware when instincts, emotions, and sensations blur our clear mind. To be aware at such times requires that on prior occasions we have paid close attention to what happens in our body when we are threatened by challenging circumstances.
While missing lunch can make us “hangry” in the afternoon, it is obvious that the ways in which COVID-19 threatens us, our loved ones, and people for whom we care, can affect us more profoundly. Strong emotions make our thinking less logical and confuses our sense of probabilities and risks. We can easily become our worst self at a time when we need to be at our absolute best.
Question 2: Are you ready to use tools designed for complex challenges?
Much of our schooling, studies, and training helps us understand causes and effects in life. Stories play out along simple threads of causes and effects. Analyses, strategies, and planning also have to do with causality. The same is the case with almost all theories on management and leadership. If we do X, then Y is likely to happen.
That makes complexity disturbing. We do not know what happens if we do X or how to make Y happen. It’s unpredictable. There are still causes and effects at play but in such plenitude that we may only find the causal connections in hindsight. And even then, we may not have any assurance that the same X will cause the same Y every time.
To deal constructively with complexity, we must put much of what we have learned aside. So, are you aware of relevant tools, and have you practiced using them? That is basically what Question 2 asks.
(Hint: Making many small, creative moves, little by little, tends to create a more positive impact in complex circumstances than one big-bang masterplan done once and for all.)
Question 3: Is your staff already developing deliberately?
We take pride in having been able to foresee that something would happen. That helps to explain why it’s so tempting to try to become as right as possible and get others to buy into our thinking. This can work wonders if we are somewhat right, but it can also be a disaster when we are not only wrong but also quite far off.
Consequently, complexity cries for something different than the classical, hierarchical organization with centralized decision-making and top-down communication. The opposite of that is not necessarily a completely flat organization. Virtues are the essence, not the physical form. The we-know-better approach kills curiosity. The staff pays disproportionate attention to what is said inside the organization, as opposed to listening to customers and society outside.
Question 3 is ultimately about whether people show up for work in the morning with a genuine appetite to learn and make a difference. Few would ever confess to not doing that, but their ability to do so depends on whether they are willing to put their ego aside and openly admit that they have much to learn by doing their daily work. Symptoms of this include asking surprising questions, constantly doing small experiments, and frequently inviting conversations about what they might do better. Is everyone who is not strictly employed to conduct repetitive tasks trying to contribute evermore?
Please count your answers to the above questions. For each question, you had the option to answer yes, maybe, or no. You can compare your total score with the categories below: