5 tips to stay relevant in a VUCA world

by | Sep 8, 2014 | Blog | 4 comments

Tar pits“Can we talk?” Yes, the catchphrase of the late pioneering-comic Joan Rivers, a master of both comedy and reinvention.

Not until her sudden death had I considered what a great role model she was for our VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) world—especially for those of us of a certain age and era. She wasn’t content staying still and living with the status-quo.

Last month, in a keynote address at the education conference of a professional association, I challenged the members there to change our mindset and our actions, especially in how we interact with our organizational clients.

Otherwise, I said we members run the risk of sinking into the tar pits. If we don’t change our ways, we’re going to be so mired in gunk that it’s going to be next to impossible to get out.

From an organizational perspective, to me, the three biggest changes in the past 15 years or so have been the influence of Google, the move to mobile and the flattening of organizations. All three have had a huge impact not only in the business world, but also for consultants, especially those who consider themselves trusted advisors.

With Google and other search engines available on our smartphones, we have at our fingertips more computing power than the President of the United States had in 1997, the year before Google was founded. That gives everyone with a smart phone the ability to look up answers to so many different questions.

Google has become a game changer. If something is discoverable on Google, you’ve got to do more than just regurgitate what people can find on their own, as the keynoter, career advisor Marilyn Moats Kennedy has advised. (She’s also a whiz at reinvention.)

With Google, you’ve got to be able to interpret information and help apply it. That’s especially true when people are used to doing self-service wherever they are, thanks to their mobile devices that are almost appendages.

And just as information has become more accessible and democratic for people, their expectations have changed in how they work in their organizations. They often reach out to their peers rather than leaders or outside experts.

Consider how easy it is to tap into a group on LinkedIn, do an informal Tweet-up or have a Google Hangout.

The five tips I shared for being a relevant trusted advisor in our VUCA world are:

  1. Embrace simple, social fun as a complement to serious work. Why fight our brain’s desire to be social? Plus, when we interact on a personal level, especially face-to-face, we are more empathetic, which helps build rapport, credibility and trust.
  2. Strive for clarity over certainty. Focus more on the strategic direction than the tactical elements of a plan. If you know the direction you’re going in and the context, you’ll be a better guide and advisor than if you’ve got your head down looking at a plan—or following a GPS map that’s becoming more and more outdated by the moment.
  3. Value participation over expertise. Forget about being the expert in the room; instead, get people involved and help them work together and learn from each other. If you’ve got a specialized knowledge, think of yourself as the fire extinguisher to keep them from putting themselves on fire. But don’t deny them from using or even playing with matches.
  4. Encourage your clients to address wicked problems and dilemmas instead of solve problems. In organizations, the office supplies may come from Staples, but the Staples Easy Button is a myth. Instead, we have messes. We have to be prepared to open up our minds and think creatively about ways to flip dilemmas around and see new opportunities, as Bob Johansen, Distinguished Fellow of the Institute for the Future, suggests.
  5. Be agile instead of resilient. When you’re flexible and willing to learn and try new things, you’re able to experiment about ways to serve your clients better, which often translates into helping them lead better. When you take small steps rather than make big bets, it’s easier to course correct. Plus, you can better pivot for the next new thing. For example, from my perspective, the training I’m doing in applied neuroscience and behavior design have been invaluable to me over the past few years.

Because of my work in behavior design, I know these five tips aren’t enough on their own to spur you into action, either to adopt some or all of these five tips or your own. We humans are too concerned with preserving our energy and too invested in the status quo to jump into action, especially if you haven’t considered these steps before.

Instead, just start thinking about how you can stay relevant.

Then, if you prefer avoiding pain, think about the tar from the La Brea tar pits oozing over your ankles and what you need to do to get out of that dangerous situation.

On the other hand, if you’re pulled toward pleasure, consider what you want to do to become better, not just older.

(By the way, for more about avoidance and approach motivation, check out Be a workhorse: target your messages to pain and pleasure.)

Meanwhile, will you join me in a toast to the memory of Joan Rivers? And when you’re ready, please share your tips on staying relevant.


  1. Paul Everett

    The most important element is self-knowledge and doing the needed work to discover who you are. In two words, “Becoming Conscious”. Unfortunately, we are dealing in a mostly unconscious world. I have no solution for that.

    It has always been VUCA, just in different ways. If you think this is VUCA, you haven’t studied history, especially medieval history. Or Biblical history. Life was nasty, brutish and short. Until the steam engine, little of significance changed. So, technologically, this IS different. But our Consciousness hasn’t kept up. jmho.

  2. Howard Prager

    Well written, and I love some of the people you refer to (Marilyn Moats Kennedy is fantastic). I think you’re missing a key fourth element – global. Again, 10 or so years ago, global might be outsourcing to Mexico. Now is there anything made that doesn’t have parts or pieces from a multitude of countries and locations? Whether it’s knowledge from India, parts from China, customer service from the Philippines, or clothing from Viet Nam, the whole world is now one giant supplier and marketplace. And more volatile than ever. Thanks for your well written and thoughtful blog. We can talk!

  3. Liz Guthridge

    Howard, you are exactly right! To be and stay relevant now, you need to have a global mindset and be able to work well with people from different countries and cultures. Thanks so much for pointing this out.

  4. Liz Guthridge

    Paul, thanks for commenting. I agree with you that self-awareness and knowledge, which have always been important are even more valuable today. One of the big differences though today compared to the past is the speed at which things change.

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