COVID-19 and Life in a VUCA World!
By John Gelder, CMC
The COVID-19 epidemic has been described as an earthquake that will lead to a seismic shift in how we manage our lives. To say the impact is disruptive would be putting it mildly. From a leadership perspective, theorists such as Warren Bennis, Michael Porter and Clayton Christensen have for many years offered guidance on how to deal strategically with disruptive change. Drawing on work by Bennis as far back as 1987 and further developed by the U.S. army, the concept of VUCA leadership is particularly relevant. VUCA, an acronym which stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous as applied to an interconnected world, offers a practical code for organizational awareness and readiness in times of crisis. Analytically, the following questions illustrate how VUCA might be applied to the COVID-19 crisis:
Volatile – Will the impact of the virus be felt in one main wave or in successive waves of varying intensity?
Uncertain – Will the economy go into a long, deep depression or will it recover quickly along with stock market values and investments?
Complex – Will supply chains and critical infrastructure be able to respond to the pressures brought on by the virus or will sectors of the economy fracture and need to be reformed?
Ambiguous – Has the world overreacted to the risk of the virus due to saturated media coverage or have we been too complacent in our preparation and response to it?
The answers to these questions cannot be found in our business-as-usual analytical models or modes of management thinking. Indeed, various strategies have been proposed for how leaders and managers should respond to a VUCA world, but most involve some form of informal, flexible, non-linear thinking (versus rigid, dogmatic or bureaucratic approaches) that is geared towards identifying and mitigating potential risks. For example, professional risk managers have known for some time the importance of tailoring their mitigation strategies to distinguish between high probability/low impact events (being caught in a thunderstorm) versus low probability/high impact events (being struck by lightning). To put it in today’s context, the distinction might be between the risk of catching a common cold or flu versus the risk of catching or transmitting the COVID-19 virus.
Conceptually speaking, VUCA informs our thinking a bit further along these lines and helps us in our search for answers to questions like those posed above. For example, if we substitute predictability for probability (Y axis) and knowledge for impact (X axis), we can then adopt risk strategies and plans that reflect the fluid nature of the environment we are faced with. Indeed, in a January 2014 Harvard University Review article entitled What VUCA Really Means for You, authors Nathan Bennett and James Lemoine did just that when they offered a framework for how leaders might respond to a VUCA world depending on where they find themselves on this prediction/knowledge matrix.
The approach can be applied equally to both organizational strategy or public policy decision-making, including in areas such as public safety, emergency preparedness and crisis response. For example, when faced with highly complex situations with many interconnected parts and variables but where available information is limited, the approach might be to restructure, bring on or develop specialists, and build up resources adequate to address the degree of complexity. Similarly, and particularly relevant to the current COVID-19 crisis where the environment we face is highly unstable but not necessarily hard to understand (knowledge about it is available from past experiences), the approach calls for building in slack and devoting resources to preparedness—for instance, stockpiling inventory or overbuying talent. This is precisely what infectious disease specialists have been warning governments to do for some time now. However, such steps are typically expensive and frequently met with resistance because the return on investment is not immediately obvious (dogmatic, linear thinking).
Those who work on the front lines of health care, public safety, emergency response and critical infrastructure are now being asked to pay the price for the lack of planning and foresight in assessing the risks related to COVID-19. Those of us in more mundane functions can only admire their courage and selflessness as they go about performing their difficult tasks. Time will tell, if collectively, we can overcome this current crisis without destroying our economy in the process. Perhaps more importantly, time will tell if we can learn from it. A VUCA refresh might help!
For those interested in learning more, there is a good summary of VUCA concepts and VUCA resources at https://tothepointatwork.com/article/vuca-world/.
We will have more to say on managing through the COVID-19 pandemic crisis in the weeks ahead. In the meantime, stay safe, stay healthy and keep your distance!