VUCA 2.0 – Help Wanted
09 July 2020
Posted by: John Williams
There’s a lot of writing and talk around at the moment about complexity, not least because the current health, economic and social-wellbeing pressures are enormously challenging – and deeply complex.
With that in mind, here’s something to ponder. Complexity is a thing so difficult to define, that one dictionary presents it simply as ‘the state of being complex’.
Another commentator confidently states ‘It would require many different concepts to capture all our notions of the meaning of complexity’ - in other words, it’s too difficult. Yet somehow, somewhere, we must have a definition of complexity, if for no other reason than we have a word for it.
Hovering on the edge of this dilemma, and something that will have escaped almost no-one’s notice over the last few months or years, is the rise of the word ‘VUCA’.
That unlovely acronym stands for ‘Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity’. It was coined in the late 1980’s, and popularised via the US Army War College, where VUCA was used increasingly to describe (appropriately, adequately and accurately) the post-Cold War world. Since then, like a lot of obscure yet somehow cool shorthand, it has been appropriated by the business lobby, who love it’s hard-edged negativity. There is nothing like a gift from the Cold Warriors to make the ‘suit, tie and braces’ brigade feel sinisterly important. (To our audience in North America – for ‘braces’ please read ‘suspenders’).
So here we are, with ‘the VUCA world’ quoted at every turn as the source of our many ills, and with the purveyors of corporate wisdom smoothing back and forth between prophecies of doom and miraculously-crafted antidotes (Go global..! Do digital..! Be agile..! – the list goes on). Underneath it all, the dark and amorphous threat of VUCA lurks like some almost-seen phantom just beyond the reach of conscious competence. Perhaps we’re trying too hard…
As I am myself a member of the suit, tie and braces brigade, and someone who blathers on about VUCA at every opportunity, I have a tendency, if not an excuse to think about it a lot. Thus it is, that I have come to the conclusion that either it isn’t quite as robust a concept as first thought, or I have actually come up with an exciting new theory. I leave you to form your own conclusions. In the meantime, let me tell you what I think.
The Four Horsemen of the Vucopalypse (see what I did there..?) are always quoted as a team, and always, of course, in the same order, to underpin the acronym. VUCA = Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Yet, all elements are not created equal. In fact, three of them are decidedly subordinate.
My exciting new theory is this. Far from comprising four equally menacing spectral phenomena, three – Volatility, Uncertainty and Ambiguity – are actually the components that make up the fourth: Complexity. Far from surrounding us with four horrible heads, VUCA is instead a three-circle, would-be Venn diagram, coming together with Complexity at its heart.
There’s something quintessential in this revelation, I am certain of it, yet I can’t quite get a handle on it – it is important, and I don’t know why.
So, help me, please. It seems meaningful that Volatility, Uncertainty and Ambiguity are the components of which Complexity is made. Meaningful because, if we can disaggregate Complexity into those three, and then lessen Volatility, Uncertainty and Ambiguity (which we can), then maybe we can rise above methodologies, and dispel Complexity.
Or at least we’ll have made a start.
What do you think..?