If there is one acronym that has proliferated at a nauseating pace and at an evergrand scale, revitalizing management and strategy text, as well as nonsensical jargon across the last decade, and catching the attention of analysts, academicians, consultants, and senior managers globally – it is VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity).
The idea of VUCA, an emergent body of knowledge around VUCA including OD solutions, has erupted as a global tsunami of sorts, and is being peddled relentlessly to anxious and fearful top management of commercial and not-for-profit firms, many of who have been scarred in 2001-2 and yet again in 2008-9 as global financial markets took a beating.
VUCA seems to have become the new arch-enemy of modern organizations and CEOS, mirroring the intensity of USA’s war on global terrorism. Ivy league campuses and consulting giants have gotten into the act, by publishing numerous models and frames that tells the ordinary mortal like you and I – how to stand up and face this enemy. The HR community of professionals has been most responsive to this call – they evangelize words such as ‘Agile’ and ‘Adaptable’. Competencies and training programs are being designed and developed around these themes so that the next wave of ‘visionary managers’ can deploy and display ‘VUCA leadership’ and make us all feel safe again.
Ironically, the notion of VUCA like many other words in business text comes from military vocabulary. Used in 1990s, VUCA was coined by the U.S. Army War College to describe the more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous multilateral world which resulted from the end of the Cold War – with an intent of exploring the processes of preparedness, anticipation, sense-making, and evolution.
In this blog, I am choosing to question some of the basic assumptions behind VUCA body of knowledge and VUCA Leadership models as applied in business context – highlighting some of the dangers of continuing with hypermasculine and control-centric approaches reminiscent of 19th and 20th century management thinking.
The perils of hyper-masculine thinking
Look at this picture!
Such pictures are being deployed as metaphors of managing and living the VUCA world. The VUCA is seen as a violent white water – dangerous, life threatening, and chaotic, and the only response plausible is to deploy the macho muscles of ‘visioning’, ‘agility’ and ‘adaptability’. The managers (rafters) need to look tough, brawny, aligned, and feverishly excited … game on!
It is almost as if the vicissitudes and vagaries of the VUCA world can be responded to from only a hyper-masculine platform.
Have you ever noticed how a child deals with uncertainty and volatility?
Through a sense of play and fun – the child creatively builds narratives, enacts dramas and thus maufactures so many other ways of engaging with the same phenomena. The average child leverages vulnerability, hope, and helplessness – seeking help, seeking belonging, seeking dependency, and offering the gifts of love and faith in return. A child looks at VUCA as a gift to play with just as a violent fairy tale or a traumatic event perhaps …
Have you ever experienced how a woman works with uncertainty and ambiguity in her journey of motherhood ?
In the tumultous 9 months of pregnancy and consequent birth of a child – she intuitively builds spaces and communities for her own well being as well as the child in her womb, her replenishment, acquiring subjective wisdom and knowledge through songs and stories, and learning coping mechanisms with the miracle of birth and the consequent demands of the infant. These feminine energies, distinct and different from masculine energies, when it comes to engaging VUCA, have never been spoken of in management texts, and of course military text.
Have you ever heard stories of how an aging wise man or woman prepare for inevitability of death?
Each society has evolved its own traditional and subjective wisdom of engaging with uncertainty, ambiguity, complexity and volatility. There are rituals, practices, and dialogues within families, communes, and larger society to cope with birth, death, uncertainty etc.
Strangely, these aspects are never referred to in the managerial world – perhaps because femininity, traditionality, child-like naivete, vulnerability, et al are not to be treasured today; perhaps because there is no place for communities in the global organization today to work with love, faith, sacrifice, compassion, surrender, and vulnerability. In all my searches for new models to look at VUCA – not many of these words are used or talked about.
You may pooh-pooh my ‘needless romanticizing’ but take a look at any literature on VUCA today – all models and frames are masculine, celebrating the macho manager, and her agility and ability to set vision, and her adaptability to survive etc.
If colonization ignored the world of children, women, and the aged, the VUCA world denounces these as ‘undesirable’ and ‘irrelevant’.
So I guess – you can either be the masculine hero regardless of your gender or a nobody (victim / loser) if you were to engage with VUCA today
VUCA Leadership, Boundary, and Ashby’s Law of Requisite Variety
Let me move to something easier and perhaps safer to talk about – Systems thinking and Cybernetics!
Thinkers across organization behaviour, cybernetics, and system psychodynamics, converge on the premise that boundary of any system is a realm or space where discontinuity is acutely experienced – discontinuity between the inner world (intra-organization) and the outer world (ecology).
This notion of boundary is a lived reality, and the boundary is the only space that beckons or evokes a leadership process (as distinct from ‘leader’) – a process by which the discontinuity and its ill effects are engaged with – by either changing the nature of the boundary or by transforming the inner systems, processes, throughputs, culture, values etc. Absence of leadership would render any system with rigid boundaries, and rigid and tightly defined boundaries evoke no leadership – this vicious cycle leads to ultimate collapse and death of the system.
At this juncture, let me also bring in an interpretation of Ashby’s Law – which states, “that to successfully regulate a system, the variety of the regulator must be at least as large as the variety of the regulated system”.
If I were to put these two themes of boundary & leadership along with Ashby’s law together – in a VUCA context, unless there is an experience of requisite variety and diversity inside the regulator or lets say the management as well as the stakeholders, their collective ability to sense and respond to the variety and diversity outside (within the ecology) becomes near impossible – everything gets to be seen and experienced as extremely volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous…
I believe that this is true at both the collective and individual level…
If I as a human being become over-crystallized through processes of indoctrination and socialization (the homo economicus for example in capitalistic societies as per my earlier blogs), I lose touch with my inner diversity, plurality, and the possibility that I can be this and that and much more … my identity becomes rigid and fragile at the same time.
My ego function (leadership function) becomes entrenched and mono-dimensional to perpetuate this sense of rigid identity, and I am unable to work with realities that question or challenge this or are different. Thus I become fragile and not agile, and afraid of VUCA as opposed to looking at it as a gift.
In today’s organization – exploring plurality inside is steadily becoming a taboo. In my experience, even working with Indian frames such as EUM or chakras is not welcome for these evoke a dangerous plurality that supposedly takes away focus and energy.
Similarly an organizational system that is not in touch with multiplicity inside including realities that are not aligned to stated goals or strategy or mission, including conflicting values, internecine politics, conflicting pulls of evolution and entropy, would find it very difficult to look at the same outside in its ecology.
The irony is that Globalization has perpetuated standardization – of ways of thinking, feeling, and acting in the modern world – globalization has rendered multiplicity and plurality insignificant. Commodities and brands are more or less modeled on consistent frames. For example, Business Schools across the world are consistent with offering the same ol’ frames and same ol’ text.
Thus Globalization has rendered the ‘regulator’ and the leadership process extremely mono-dimensional – VUCA is, in my thinking, a consequence of gigantic proportions, of this process.
Thus to me battling the VUCA monster means going the other way – exploring the multiplicity inside and listening to it, engaging with it without socialized stances, and celebrating plurality.
VUCA, Networks and the Collective Unconscious
I am not sure whether I know much of what is happening – but I do think human intelligence and how its sits in the world today has undergone a shift. We are much more networked and interdependent – our needs to be in touch with each other, express and communicate, learn and discover are triggered and contained in complex networks that are emerging on their own.
My speculation is that the independent self reliant individual (the singleton / the agent) is slowly morphing into a ‘node’ of many a complex networks, networks with their own momentum, resources, and salient values.
The adventures around survival and proliferation cannot longer be constructed around singletons, but need to be mapped across competing networks.
If networks were to become the unit of exploration and the unit of enquiry in the VUCA world today, it is critical that we look at the notion of ‘collective unconscious’ from this perspective. Collective Unconscious (using the Jungian term) would be the container that would carry the shadows of the network – shadows would include both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’.
Accessing collective unconscious is not easy but is critical to get a cogent picture of VUCA.
Let me give you an example
In The Third Reich of Dreams (1968) by the German journalist Charlotte Beradt, she shows how the Nazis caused paranoia in the German population, particularly amongst Jews; their angst being pronounced in their dreams during the Nazis’ rise in the 1930s. During this time, Beradt had medical friends collect the dreams of their patients, all of whom were Jewish. The patient’s dreams dramatically foretold their horrendous future in Nazi Germany. Charlotte collected more than 350 dreams in 1930s that augured the rise of Nazis and the destruction of the Jews. It was a community / a network that dreamt of this rise for each individual found it easy to deny or repress such notions.
If one was listening to collective unconscious – Hitler’s rise and subsequent WWII would not be seen as VUCA.
Inspired by her work, Gordon Lawrence coined a term and a technology – ‘Social Dreaming’, which is now the subject of substantial academic study. Social dreaming has been used to surface creativity, tackle management issues, understand social issues in disparate groups and networks, surface unconscious issues at conferences, and foster innovation in for-profit, nonprofit, government, education, political and other organizations.
This evening, some of us get together, to work with ‘collective unconscious’ with a batch of leaders for the 5th successive year, for a global management institution – an institution that continues to support this work on collective unconscious. This work is not easily understood but my experience of working with collective unconscious has been very rewarding.
If one works with networks and groups – VUCA does not remain a monster; in fact integrating individual sense-making of the context at a network level leads to a better understanding of VUCA and the context. I can be more dramatic to state that the individual is afraid to look at the larger context – and his or her fear edits out and denies data. Unless we work with the network or the group as a basis of enquiry, we would not be able to grapple with what is being collectively denied or repressed. And yet that reality exists and is likely to emerge as monster sooner or later.
Working with collectives in sick companies or in thriving companies – does lead to patterns fo what the system seems to be editing out or denying or repressing or displacing – But all this means moving beyond the individual, the individual leader, the individual manager, the individual follower … Again I do not see much literature working with networks and groups today …
I have doubts on how the VUCA ecology has cropped up – I have doubts on solutions that are being offered to tackle VUCA – these seem familiar and perhaps obsolete. The three aspects of ‘hyper-masculinity’, ‘denial of plurality within’, and ‘working with collectives’ seem small but significant steps to engage with this phenomenon to me. I would of course exhort the reader to refer to existing literature including HBR and Forbes, before agreeing or disagreeing with me.
It would be good to hear what you think about VUCA