The results of the referendum have had huge ramifications for our businesses and our employees – we need to do what we can to control our future. We are seeing volatility in our economic markets and uncertainty in our political arena. There will be an unprecedented level of complexity involved as we extricate ourselves from the EU and a number of ambiguous situations to respond to.
Now is the time to work together to ensure our economic and political stability. We are facing more uncertainty and debate ahead – strong leadership and a positive mind set will be required to navigate our turbulent world. We shall need foresight and insight to support calm and well considered actions.
You will possibly remember the book The Road Less Travelled. From its start it made clear that one of the reasons people feel depressed, disconnected or anxious is that they thought life would be easier and then found it was not. The expectation led to assumptions that could not be matched and their sense of well-being and happiness could not live up to those fantasies of a trouble-free life where everything ran smoothly.
The same of applies to our current situation and the world of work and our experience of working in what are complex and ever changing organisations and environments. If we imagine our workplaces as straightforward places where we turn up, do a job and then pop back home again – then think again.
Similarly, if we imagine that there is a simple answer to every problem that can be distilled into a pithy quotation from an ancient Eastern sage on the back of an uplifting card with a picture of a glorious sunrise – think again.
We now live and work in what has been termed the VUCA world:
Volatile – because things change fast but not in a predictable way
Uncertain – because major changes happen so quickly and so fast that we cannot read them. The past is no longer an accurate predictor of the future
Complex – because there are so many different things happening all at the same time with so many moving parts and so many people involved
Ambiguous – because the “who, what, where, when, why and how?” questions we used to pose no longer can be answered.
Our mistake comes when we try to oversimplify this VUCA world. We seek to deny the uncertainty and complexity and apply a few formulaic solutions hoping they will still hold good. We are obsessed with the “Keep it Simple, Stupid” mantra that allows us off the hook – to rush towards what we term a solution when in fact it is nothing more than a stop-gap holding position.
Yet if we once stopped thinking it would be simple, that we live in a certain world that follows predictable patterns with enduring single truths, then we would start to manage ourselves and our organisations better. We would look to lead in a VUCA world by developing new ways of working which sought greater collaboration, rather than petty competition, and that worked towards more lasting solutions to complex problems through deeper thinking than our current obsession with catchphrases.
Organisations are complex largely because they are interacting with a complex world and bring together people of immense capability and diversity whose aspirations, needs, beliefs and values challenge and confuse our thinking. Yes, once we can respond appropriately, once we can get our head, heart, and hands around the problems then the solutions are both varied and rich. They are eminently more worthwhile and hold their value.
But leaders in organisations need to step up to the challenge of managing complexity, need to set in place more co-operative and integrated ways of working to create a mind-set which takes up the new challenges:
“….the key organisational task is not to design the most elegant structure but to capture individual capabilities and motivate the entire organisation to respond co-operatively to a complicated and dynamic environment.”
Christopher Bartlett and Sumanta Ghoshal, Harvard Business Review 1990
We need to seek and create a clear vision for our future with a strong alignment to our values. Leaders will need to develop a deep understanding of the context they operate in. We need to step out and beyond our immediate sphere – universal scanning will help us deepen our understanding and make sense of the complexity. We need to seek clarity and be clear about what it is that is required or what we are trying to achieve. We need to create the conditions for us all to thrive and not just survive. A level of agility will be required – the ability to be quick and graceful, to have the mental and physical skills in speed and grace with strong intellectual acuity.
So do not despair. If you are finding it tough at the moment, and if your environment seems to be forever changing, hideously complex, full of doubts and with few certainties left to cling onto then that is how it is meant to be. Our success will come not from over-simplifying the problems, but by working in new ways with each other to master complexity, live with ambiguity, ride volatility, and enjoy uncertainty. Just don’t expect it to be easy. There will be plenty of challenges ahead.
Oakridge delivers a one day programme titled Leadership skills for an uncertain world (VUCA) which is aimed at leaders who want to build a comprehensive toolkit for surviving and thriving in the VUCA environment. Please read the programme overview HERE and contact Joanne Sharp for more information.