You’ve probably heard the latest acronym to enter the business vocabulary – VUCA. Adopted from the military context, stands for Volatile, Unpredictable, Complex, and/or Ambiguous.

It is an apt description for the uncharted waters that we are all sailing into as the rate of change becomes dizzyingly ever faster – changes in technology, data, markets, consumer desires, work practices, corporate culture, employee expectations, legislation, politics, environment, economics, society as a whole, or all of the above.

How can your business keep an even keel when it is being buffeted by wave after wave of change? How can you stay shipshape and resilient no matter what storms are raging around you?

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Ocean, Ocean Navigation, Roz Savage

Let’s start with VOLATILITY. We can counter this with VISION and VALUES.

To continue with the seafaring metaphor, we need to know where we’re going. As Seneca said, “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable”.

So even in the midst of all this unpredictability, we need to have a clear vision of where we want to end up in five, 10, or 25 years from now (while maintaining flexibility about precisely what course we take to get there, as we shall see later).

This vision needs to be in alignment with the corporate values. Think of the values as being the organisation’s moral compass – when there are tough decisions to be made, what are your guiding principles? What values do you represent? What values would you fight to defend?

Like the cardinal points on a compass, four values is a good number, arranged in order of priority as there will inevitably be occasions when there is a conflict of values. It is well worth analysing your values as an individual as well as for your organisation. What drives you? What do you stand for?

Virgin Unite, Ocean Unite, Ocean, Ocean Navigation, Roz Savage

In times of UNPREDICTABILITY, we need to maintain ULTIMATE FLEXIBILITY.

There is a concept in project management called the ‘Cone of Uncertainty’ and traditionally the cone decreases over time as the work progresses, information emerges, learning takes place, and risks are mitigated. So the guiding principle is that you wait until the Cone of Uncertainty has dwindled to manageable proportions before making binding commitments on budgets and deadlines.

But in weather forecasting, the Cone of Uncertainty is an entirely different creature. When meteorologists track the path of a hurricane, they know where it is right now (uncertainty = zero), but the further into the future they try to predict its path, the greater the uncertainty becomes. While you can manage what is happening inside your organisation, there may well be external weather systems that are beyond your control. This is where Ultimate Flexibility (UF) comes in.

The idea of UF is that you keep open as many options as possible, for as long as possible, as you wait for data to emerge about which way the winds are blowing. UF should not be mistaken for indecisiveness – it is a conscious decision to postpone your decision until either you have enough information to make a good decision, or until the penalties for further postponement become greater than the potential benefits of waiting. 

To counter COMPLEXITY takes COURAGE.

It requires intellectual courage to recognise that the past is increasingly going to be a poor predictor of the future, and that what has got you to here may not get you to there, so you need all hands on deck in the shape of a diverse team who can help you see the challenge from a wide variety of perspectives. A wise leader, navigating an increasingly complex future, will be humble enough to know that she can’t possibly know everything, and will invite genuine collaboration and co-creation from a variety of colleagues. As Winston Churchill said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen”.

It also takes moral courage to hold the ship steady through the waves. Flexibility is not the same as wishy-washyness. Once the time for flexibility and collaboration has passed, the captain needs to firmly take the wheel and keep the ship on course for the envisioned destination for long enough to evaluate whether the strategy is working. 

The antidote to AMBIGUITY is AWARENESS.

A sailing captain develops a sixth sense for trouble. I have seen a skipper go from being apparently fast asleep in his bunk to being wide awake on deck in a matter of seconds after an uncontrolled jibe. He always had half an ear and half an eye open and alert for danger. A good leader also needs to keep their wits about them at all times, paying particular attention to what is happening in their peripheral vision.

In relying on tried and tested metrics, there is a risk that we don’t notice what we’re not measuring. Imagine that you are on the bridge of a ship, navigating by GPS. It is pleasantly reassuring – you can see where you are, and where you’re going, and everything seems nicely under control… until you hit the iceberg that your GPS didn’t know was there. You were too busy looking at the GPS display to look out of the window.

Compare this with the traditional Polynesian voyaging technique, called wayfinding. They use all their senses to notice winds, waves, sun, moon and stars, shapes and colours of clouds, and behaviour of sea creatures, taking a multisensory and holistic approach to navigation (think of Disney’s Moana). A Polynesian navigator is utterly at one with her surroundings, and nothing escapes her notice. With so many sources of information, she can cross-check and validate to make sure she stays on course.

To keep your awareness open, you need to take your eyes off your metrics once in a while, and look around you. You need to let go of what you think you know, because it will block your view of what you don’t know you don’t know. If you “know” you are at a latitude where icebergs don’t exist, you won’t be looking for them. A daily awareness or meditation practice can help dissolve your blind spots and keep you seeing clearly.

These are exciting times to be a leader.

Those who cling to business as usual will find themselves disappearing beneath the waves of change, but those who can surf the waves of our VUCA new world will find unprecedented possibilities. André Gide wrote, “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore”.

There are many new oceans of opportunity awaiting discovery. Do you have the courage?


- This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 

This post is part of a series produced by Virgin Unite in partnership with Ocean Unite, an initiative to unite and activate powerful voices for ocean-conservation action. 

Comment