Leading in a VUCA world

by | Apr 8, 2012 | Blog | 7 comments

How’s your world—your VUCA world, that is?

VUCA stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous, a term coined by the US Army War College in the weeks before September 11, 2001. It’s a popular phrase with Bob Johansen, a distinguished fellow and former president of Institute for the Future.

According to Dr. Johansen, who shared his 2020 forecast at the Association of Change Management Professionals global conference  this week, our VUCA world is not going away. In fact it’s just going to spin faster during the next decade.

In his talk “External Future Forces That Will Disrupt the Practice of Change Management,” Dr. Johansen noted that VUCA is not necessarily doom and gloom. While VUCA can provide threats, it also can offer opportunities, especially if you translate VUCA as “vision, understanding, clarity and agility.”

As for his two big 2022 predictions for organizational change agents, they are:

1. “The digital natives (now 16 years or younger) will create new practices to make change through gaming.” (The other key phrase besides gaming in this sentence is “make.” Dr. Johansen predicts that a culture of makers will drive the next generation of change. And as a result, leaders need to show the “maker instinct” trait.)

2. “Reciprocity-based innovation will focus on the economic, social and psychological value of reciprocity.” (Two important traits for leaders are smart-mob organizing and commons creating. Think Creative Commons.)

Dr. Johansen challenged the 825 of us in attendance to figure out how to help people and organizations adapt to these changes and others. To do this, we should watch our terms and our questions.

For example, one of the questions we should ask is not, “What’s new?” but “What’s ready to take off?” Quoting author William Gibson, who coined the term “cyberspace,” Dr. Johansen said Gibson was absolutely right when he said “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

Both gaming and reciprocity-based innovation are popular in some circles now. If you use or are familiar with Dropbox, Evernote, Doodle or any of the other cloud-based tools that offer free basic levels, you know about reciprocity-based innovation. The companies and others like them are giving away free services and products in the faith that they will get back even more in return.

As for games, their value is that “they present obstacles we volunteer to overcome” Dr. Johansen explained. Gaming experiences are a powerful way to learn.

In thinking about terms, Dr. Johansen observed that change management is an outdated term. Nobody wants to be managed anymore. And change is everywhere all the time.

Yes! But what is that new term?

As I continue to mull that over, I will commit to these three actions to help myself and others better adapt to our ever evolving VUCA world:

  • Get fit. According to Dr. Johansen, this is the age of the corporate athlete. We need to be organizationally, mentally and physically fit, which supports what Tony Schwartz has been advising with The Energy Project.
  • Do peripheral learning to enhance peripheral vision. To look for people, insights and resources that will help us fine-tune and invigorate our ways of working, we need exposure to things outside our regular stomping grounds. This means hanging out with people from different disciplines than our own and becoming aware of what they’re doing and thinking. Breaking out of our echo chamber is more important than ever.
  • Refresh language frequently. This involves more than updating our obsolete language, as I recently wrote about. It’s also tracking signals to see what people are thinking and talking about, and making sure you’re using words, symbols and visuals that resonate with them.

For example, the phrase “executive presentation skills” is so last century. Instead, people want leaders with conversation skills. These leaders—and others too—need to convey complex ideas simply, not simplistically, and listen to what we say.

What other actions do we need to take? And can you help me find a more up-to-date, accurate phrase for “change management”?


  1. Jim Smith, PCC

    Liz, there is so much information in this blog post that it made my brain hurt. AND it got me all excited. Yes, this is the world we live in today. I’m a mid-stream baby boomer who believes he was born 20 years too early. I love this mess we are in, as it is inspiring innovation and change on a scale never seen before. ALSO love your distinction between exec presentation skills and CONVERSATION skills. This is the primary tool for change — real, meaningful conversation.
    Thanks for a provocative and insightful post.

  2. Deb Nystrom

    Liz, you are so right on about your final two point about what leaders we need today and into the future. We need leaders who

    1) have conversation skills and can build rapport, not just share reports, and

    2) can convey complex ideas simply, not simplistically, and listen to what we say.     

    Sharing you post on my ScoopIt stream, Change Leaders Watch. Thanks for an excellent post! (And I look forward to talking with you this week, yeah!)

    ~ Deb

  3. Liz Guthridge

    Great comments, Jim and Deb! Thanks for weighing in.

    Yes, it’s an exciting time!

  4. John Barbuto

    The term “change management” has been around for quite a while. It has an established following, recognized spokesmen, invested participants, and change inertia. However, I happen to agree that the industry might benefit from a recasting of the term. Personally, I like terms which utilize the concepts of adaptation and migration, both of which carry positive mental images. Yet, putting them together does seem a bit “wordy”. When these concepts are additionally framed in an organizational perspective then a term like “organizational adaptive migration” does seem wordy indeed. (I suppose an acronym could come to the rescue.)

    Someone might also offer up an option from another language – something with charisma and brevity.

    In my experience people may become a little “testy” if the term, change management, is challenged.

  5. Jane Jordan-Meier

    GREAT post Liz. Had not heard the term VUCA before but it is now part of my vocab and will be taking the concept into my crisis planning work. I totally agree with your comments on change … “Nobody wants to be managed anymore. And change is everywhere all the time.” How true – change is omnipresent. VUCA fits nicely with Ian Mitroff’s “age of the super crisis” . More than ever before trust is a BIG issue for everyone – it is the currency of doing business. I also love the concept of the corporate athlete. Thanks for the stimulating thinking.

  6. Liz Guthridge

    Thank you, Jane and JB, for your comments. Language is so important in describing what we’re feeling and doing, and helping others get on board with us. Thanks to your push, JB, I’m using “adapting” more because it is more fitting. After all, we all need to modify what we’re doing to fit changing circumstances. And when we adapt, we seem to be more in control then when others change us. I don’t know if “adapting” is the new term for a profession a la change management….I’m still wrestling with that…. Let’s keep the conversation going!

  7. gayle Krueger

    I think the term change management is very dated and really enjoyed the whole article. Especially potent was the message “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” So with that in mind I would call change management- Future present transition. Gayle

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