Finding simplicity in chaos: Beyond VUCA
Volatile. Uncertain. Complex. Ambiguous. VUCA. Some leadership pundits recommend that we use this term for anything we don’t understand or cannot control. The problem is that the tumultuous events in our world, and the concomitant domino-effects we are experiencing, have completely outgrown that label. In fact, VUCA as a handy acronym has had its day. When we invoke VUCA to explain how things are changing, we risk missing the depth and breadth of the current reality. We excuse ourselves for inaction and passivity. Paradoxically, the term might even obfuscate and confuse our ability to make sense of what’s going on right now. We need a more thoughtful way of making sense of our emerging chaos and uncertainty. In short, we need to understand our worlds and ourselves as complex adaptive systems.
Why not VUCA?
VUCA is problematic as a framework for a number of reasons.
First, the terms underpinning VUCA originated at the end of the Cold War. Coined initially by the US Army War College, they were used to describe the new global order that was emerging at the time. It was an attempt to paint a picture of how the United States saw the world in the immediate post-Cold War period. From the Western military point of view, that picture was indeed volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. It was the 9/11 terrorist attacks that enabled the acronym itself – VUCA – to gain currency. Not long after, the term was appropriated by leadership scholars and practitioners. They used it to describe what they perceived as a business environment characterized by turbulence, the unknown, and the uncontrollable. The term, and the models and tools it spawned, were a convenient way to package everything that was unfamiliar and disturbing. The label allowed people to refer to the complex reality without doing the hard work that would be necessary to figure out what they could know and might reasonably do about what was going on.
Second, VUCA owes its genesis to an American perception of a situation. That means events elsewhere in the world were somehow not very VUCA. It implied that the societal upheavals and ruptures going on in other parts of the world were not significant, but rather things that were just going on in other people’s lives and in other countries. For example, the late ‘50s marked the start of what Mao Zedong called the “Great Leap Forward.” That initiative was aimed at an exponential, social and economic leapfrogging which led – estimates vary – to between 19 and 45 million people dying of starvation. Many historians take the view that this disaster cost more lives than those lost in Russia under Stalin (20 million or more). It was something that was happening far away from the United States. For the people who suffered and died, any attempt to characterise their experience as simply VUCA-like would be a grave injustice to those who endured an existence that was in reality, a brutally enforced normality. For as long as it lasted, the Great Leap Forward was the reality of life for millions of Chinese people.
Third, and this is where VUCA is truly problematic and no longer fit-for-purpose: VUCA does not adequately apply to societies where volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity are normal aspects of the world. VUCA does not fit as a descriptor if you have grown up in Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or Yemen. It doesn’t fit because VUCA is an attempt to describe a deviation from an imagined stable, certain, simple, and clear norm. It is a redundant term because it is culturally biased and takes the perspective of the West and of Western experience as its determinant and starting point.
So, for these three main reasons, VUCA has truly passed its sell-by date. And while we’re here, we would like to make a plea for everyone to think carefully about VUCA’s cousins: “New Normal” and “Future-Proofing.” “New Normal” in its crudest form asks people to accept emerging exceptional or horrendous circumstances and move on with their lives. If we’re not careful with the term, we run the risk of denying ourselves the opportunity to interrogate why we’re in such a situation in the first place. “Future-Proofing” is even more extreme. It is an oxymoron. The future is uncertain, and uncertainty carries risk. Any notion that the future can be made risk-free is a delusion of power and privilege.
These terms can be both a distraction from and an obstacle to a deeper understanding of what confronts our world right now. Together they can hinder us in our attempts to gain a better understanding of the nature of change itself. So, let’s work a bit harder to make more sense of what’s truly going on. Let’s acknowledge the things that are unknowable in this moment but be aware and awake to the things we can know and might influence.
A true and useful alternative
Over the past 30 years, a new field of theory and practice has developed to help people see, understand, and influence change in “VUCA” systems. This emerging field draws theory from the science of complex adaptive systems. Its practice has developed in applications across a wide range of sectors and disciplines. Individuals, groups, and institutions use it to find options for action to tame their wicked, complex issues. This body of concepts, models, and methods is called human systems dynamics (HSD).
Four principles of HSD help people move past a description of VUCA and engage effectively with the challenges they face in uncertainty.
- Work across scales. In the past, experts chose their domains and answered questions that were relevant there. Nowhere was this pattern more pronounced than in the health professions: Public health, community health, family practice, radiology, cytology, physical therapy, psychology, and many more. Each discipline had its scope of practice, special jargon, and highly developed tools and methods. Complex adaptive systems self-organizing across all boundaries. That is why today’s complex issues do not fit into any one of these artificial domains. Social determinants of health, chronic illness, viral epidemics and environmental illness all require that we see across symptoms from cells to international communities. HSD provides a suite of models and methods that work equally well in any context or at any level of system. One of HSD’s basic principles is to, “Attend to the whole, the part, and the greater whole.” Complex problems can be caused by, diagnosed within, and treated at any scale. Treating a single COVID-19 patient is a totally insufficient response to our current epidemic, and public health pronouncements are equally futile. Family isolation and community supports are important, but alone they will not cure our current ills. COVID-19 interventions must reach across scales, and the work at various scales must relate in ways to make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.
- Focus on patterns, not problems. For the last 200 years, we have solved complicated problems by breaking them into simple parts. Fix the parts, put them back together, and the whole is repaired. In complex adaptive systems, the whole depends on intricate relationships among the parts. Divide it up, and the synergistic problem persists. Fix a part, and it is immediately unfixed by problems from other parts of the system. Put it back together, and it no longer resembles the whole. COVID-19 is a perfect example of a challenge that is a pattern not a problem. Close schools to reduce spread and put children (best carriers) in the care of grandparents (most vulnerable). Enforce social distancing and increase unemployment claims. Stop health professionals from interacting with vulnerable patients and leave disabled people in chronic pain. When we see the challenge as a series of problems, the solution to one generates more.
HSD considers the whole problem, and each of its sub-problems, to be patterns. Look closely at the pattern of COVID-19. You will see that it is infinitely variable, though some characteristics are common. You will also see that it is determined by specific, local, unique conditions, and that any action to improve must be drawn from and sensitive to those local conditions. You will also see that any action, by any person, at any scale has the potential to shift the pattern for all.
- Stand in inquiry. Complex adaptive systems generate deep uncertainty. Not only is the future not known, but some aspects of it are radically unknowable. You may be able to predict broad, system-wide behaviours, but specific outcomes for specific situations are totally unpredictable. Answers are likely to change from place to place and time to time, but good questions are always useful. That is why a discipline of inquiry is the path to successful adaptation in complex environments. Today, we do not know who will contract COVID-19, whose disease will become critical, who will survive, or how long survivors will be immune. We can ask good questions, though. How can we get resources to the places where they are needed? What hidden resources—physical, financial, or human—can be tapped to respond to urgent needs? How would I act if I assume I am carrying the virus?
- Keep moving. Finally, our automatic responses to threat are fight, flight, or freeze. In complex environments, none of these is a reasonable response. We are seeing the hopelessness of each of these paths in various responses to COVID-19 today. This is a phenomenon that a lot of people are feeling at the moment – low level constant fear with nowhere to put it; lots of anxious energy when the primary course of action you’re recommended to take is to “stay inside.” We don’t know exactly how to fight this virus, and nowhere is completely safe to escape it. In the short-term, it might be reasonable to freeze, but given the nature of the situation, freezing is not a long-term option. If all of our automatic responses are impossible or destructive, then what can we do? Adaptive Action. This three-step, iterative process guides individual and collective action, even in the most uncertain and dangerous situations. It asks three questions: WHAT? SO WHAT? NOW WHAT?
- WHAT are the patterns you are seeing in the here-and-now?
- SO WHAT is the most important challenge and what resources and influence are available to you?
- NOW WHAT action will make a difference in this moment and move the whole pattern toward greater health and wellbeing?
Given the dynamic nature of the complex adaptive system, any movement has the potential to change the pattern and the next WHAT? emerges immediately from the last NOW WHAT? Another benefit of Adaptive Action in the time of COVID-19 is that it scales. Individuals, families, communities, institutions can make the Adaptive Action cycle work. Adaptive Action also flexes to respond to ability and urgency. Some cycles may take seconds, others last for years.
Who will do this work?
We need new heroes in this time of turbulence and uncertainty. The great and good of our institutional structures cannot manage us into this new relationship with uncertainty. Their power is locked in the structures and relationships that are failing to respond to the current COVID-19 crisis. Experts, scholars and pundits are not up to the task, either. Their advice gives one-size-fits-all solutions to the never-repeat-in-time-or-place patterns that emerge in chaos. Complex adaptive systems theory and practice offer a new alternative to traditional power, expertise, and leadership.
Individual agents determine the emerging patterns in the self-organizing dynamics of complex adaptive systems. Agents can be individual people, but they can also be groups, institutions, objects, resources, ideas or any other influential entity. When agents interact, they generate patterns that are greater than the sum of their parts. Common examples of such patterns emerging in human systems include culture, trust, and wellbeing. Not all emerging patterns are positive, though. Other examples include violence, corruption, economic disparities, and racism. The dynamics are the same, whether the emerging patterns serve or damage the common good.
The difference between the constructive and destructive systemic patterns is driven by choice—individual choice. Every agent contributes to the patterns of the whole. Everyone, in every moment, chooses to reinforce health, life, and collective wellbeing, or they choose to contribute to tribal, selfish, destructive patterns for the whole.
Expert Humans choose life. They cannot do it alone, and the practices don’t come naturally to all of us. We must intentionally develop individual and collective capacity to see, understand, and influence our shared, emergent patterns so that each of us contributes to and benefits from a society that supports us all.
Call to action
So, in these troubled times, when all of us strive to do our best and be our best; when interdependency and uncertainty are the rule, rather than the exception; when we are called to act with and for the good of the whole; when each of us can commit to choose life, we must stop talking about VUCA. As Expert Humans, we can stop seeing ourselves as victims of these chaotic times. Instead, we can find the will and the capacity to work within our complex systems, seeking out ways to dial-up our humanity and take full advantage of the altruism, compassion and empathy in all of us. Together, we will thrive, when we see, understand, and influence patterns toward health and wellbeing for each and for all.