Article: To be or not to be in VUCA times

Strategic HR

To be or not to be in VUCA times

Battle-ready organizations need to be agile and nimble around changes as VUCA can throw up immense possibilities
To be or not to be in VUCA times

Authenticity, influencer and walk the talk are some of the qualities a VUCA leader should have


Today, Internet of Things is no longer a concept and is the driving force behind VUCA


The terminology VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) was first coined by the US Army War College in order to denote the extreme conditions in Afghanistan and Iraq in 1990s. Though those extreme conditions are not present in many parts of the world, they have come to represent the constantly changing business climate. Initially, we would make plans or solve problems to deal with the uncertainty. But now, we have to actively engage uncertainty and that requires our leaders to be very very agile.

Though many business leaders and management gurus are familiar with the concept, not many know how to combat VUCA. It was for precisely this reason that the National Human Resource Development, a national-level body representing Human Resources professionals across the country, chose a VUCA-related topic as the main theme for its 18th Annual Conference in Mumbai on November 20-22, 2014. The topic “Sustainable Growth in VUCA Times: The New Talent Agenda” saw many industrial leaders sharing their thoughts and views on how to grow a business and still keep talent at the top of the agenda in VUCA times. In this report, we take a look at some of the key highlights of the event and what it means for you.

Developing leaders in a VUCA environment

According to Paul Kinsinger, Clinical Professor, Thunderbird School of Global Management, and Executive Director, Thunderbird Executive Education (TEE), a leader who is looking to adpat to turbulent times must be willing to let go of what defined success in prior roles and organizational models; essentially he/she needs to shed all the old paradigms and design and set measures new ones. Secondly, he/she must keep his ego in check and have a keen ability to learn. He/she must have the ability to see the new leadership and new organization as an escalator to on-boarding a whole new set of skills. The most major skill that a leader will be developing would be being able to work with contradictions and paradoxes that they would come across in the VUCA world.

Leaders such as Hindustan Unilever’s Chairman Harish Manwani have taken VUCA so seriously that it was the topic of his speech at the Annual General Meeting held on 26th July, 2013. Manwani said and I quote, “A few years ago the Lebanese American scholar Nicholas Taleb introduced the concept of black swans - events that are difficult to predict because they are low probability outliers so the past provides no reliable precedent. And yet these black swan events have a huge and profound impact. Think of the September 11 terrorist attacks or the rise of the Internet.

We live now in a VUCA world surrounded by black swans. This is the New Normal.”

Authentic, influencer and walk the talk are some of the qualities that should be in a VUCA leader.

Working in VUCA times – What do organizations need to do differently

Organizations need to ensure that messages that are communicated down the leadership chain are aligned to the overall vision and are consistent. In a world where priorities constantly shift, communication needs to be direct and clear. This would not only keep the communication channels clear, but also reassure talent that nothing is amiss.

The VUCA world is all about aniticipating, learning, adapting and delivering in evolving new context. For example, the evolution of the Internet and the Financial Crisis of 2008 were events that have shaken up the existing business eco-system and also changed the way companies now look at talent. Adversity leads to developing stronger talent and this is where VUCA comes in. If a leader in VUCA times has no thought of what is in the future, then he/she will find sorrow near at hand. While the organization needs to anticipate risks, it also shouldn’t make very long-term plans that are too rigid. Plans have to be flexible as uncertain times sometimes can throw up good opportunities. So, if the organization is agile enough, it must be able to capture the chance to innovate. HR must lead that change. HR will need to reinvent and realign many of the policies and practices so that it can be in a better position to respond to talent challenges that rock the organization from time to time.

Digitization is changing the workplace like never before. If earlier companies were hesitant to let people check emails in the office, now those very same companies swear by social media and have sought to engage employees through several other mediums like Yammer and other gamification models. Internet of Things is no longer a concept and we are at a stage where it is distintly possible to make that a reality. The SMAC concept is not just changing workplaces, but also the way organizations look at talent. Today, this is the driving force behind VUCA.

Dealing with GenY in a VUCA environment

Going forward, the mantra for many CEOs would be to do more with less. While companies will need leaders who are multipliers of energy, engagement, ownership and passion, they will also need people who will listen, focus on asking the right questions, have no desire to command and control but infact co-create solutions and get genuine joy out of seeing a thousand flowers bloom. VUCA is here to stay and India is the best laboratory to develop talent.

GenY graduates are more than willing to test unexplored areas and experiment with roles outside their subject of study. Hence, their chances of continuing in the same organization have become more and more less. If organizations were to be cognizant of their ever-changing needs, then it might be in a better position to arrest the growing numbers that leave in order to pursue opportunities out of their own domain. For example, many executives are making their way to e-commerce companies as they present a whole gamut of experiences for them – one, they get to own a business role, which normally does not happen in a traditional organization. Two, working in an e-commerce company requires one to be socially agile. For a generation that is dependent on social media for communication, this works out fine. Three, the flexibility and the experiences that the role offers is priceless. While most companies today are offering part-time or flex-time working options, GenY still feel constrained that they have to work within a certain set of hours. GenY wants more ‘Life’ in work-life balance.

With VUCA times upon us, companies would do well to remember that its workforce not only comprises of GenY but also is multi-generational. Companies need to have a strategic plan to transfer knowledge from the Baby Boomers, who are probably waiting to retire in the next few years, to GenY for whom time is not an essence. GenY does not believe in waiting long either for promotions, or raise, or for taking up leadership roles. While companies are happy to rope in the young, they realized that they will need the critical skills that only the more experienced will be able to impart. Today’s organizations need to let employees express dissent and be loyal at the same time. At the same time, the employees should also know what they want and should ask for the same. They shouldn’t wait for someone to reach out.

It is time to take a leap of faith. Resist the temptation to cling to the past processes and plans. Create new ones, ones that are more agile and more in tune with your surroundings. Be curious. Be innovative. That is the only way you can beat VUCA.

Read full story

Topics: Strategic HR, #ChangeManagement

Did you find this story helpful?



How do you envision AI transforming your work?