Goodbye, VUCA and thank you for your service. For 40 years, ever since the concept of VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) emerged from conversations at the US Army War College in the late 1980s, VUCA has been a helpful way to describe our world.
For those of us in business, VUCA also has been a useful framework. For example, my clients and I have used it for developing strategies, planning, and explaining the context for changes.
Since March 2020 when the COVID pandemic started, VUCA has increasingly been losing its luster. The world is not “simply” VUCA; it feels chaotic, spinning out of control.
Consider all the chasmic events we’re encountering just in the last six months. The global food shortage and high spikes in energy prices brought on by Russia’s unprovoked war on Ukraine. The continued supply chain disruptions. Rapidly rising inflation. More Covid mutations. The outbreak of monkeypox. The return of polio. Extreme heat waves in parts of the world that typically haven’t needed air conditioning. More fires. More shootings and knifings. Other seemingly random violence.
So hello, BANI, a new framework. BANI stands for brittle, anxious, nonlinear, and incomprehensible. It’s the creation of Jamais Cascio, Distinguished Fellow, Institute for the Future. As a futurist, Cascio has been working on this framework for several years, including gathering feedback from a range of individuals. BANI is now viewed as the next generation of VUCA. BANI is a more relevant way to explain the chaotic changes in our environment, society, technologies, businesses, and politics.
As Cascio wrote in a 2020 Medium paper, Facing the Chaos, “So many of the upheavals now underway are not familiar: they’re surprising and completely disorienting. They manifest in ways that don’t just add to the stress we experience; they multiply that stress.”
While Cascio says he intentionally designed BANI to be a parallel to VUCA, BANI does more than describe our environment. It also acknowledges how we’re feeling and how we can respond.
Here’s a brief summary of what each BANI word means.
- Brittle: Brittle things, such as brittle bones, can suddenly break without warning or even injury. As Cascio describes them, brittle things can look strong and even be strong, until they hit a breaking point and then they shatter and fall apart.
For example, right now in the US, the energy grids, democracy, and health care are all brittle systems. Cyberattacks threaten the grid. Voting restrictions jeopardize democracy as do elected officials who ignore the will of the voters. With the Supreme Court’s June decision overturning Roe, doctors and other health care providers in red states are now expected to obey state legislators to avoid criminal charges rather than uphold their Hippocratic oath to protect their patients. Also, because many of these systems and others we depend on, such as global trade, are interconnected, the failure of one element can contribute to other failures.
- Anxious: The constant changes, many of which we perceive as disruptions to our expected way of life, are anxiety-inducing. Constant and extreme anxiety contributes to fear and a sense of helplessness. Anxiety also can lead to passivity if we feel we’ve lost our autonomy and ability to influence through our actions and decisions.
- Nonlinear: In a nonlinear world, “cause and effect are seemingly disconnected or disproportionate,” according to Cascio. The COVID-19 pandemic illustrates this nonlinear problem. Remember the speed at which the infection initially spread in certain parts of the world? Climate change is another example. Cascio explains that the warming we’re now experiencing is primarily the result of carbon emissions rising through the 1970s and 1980s.
- Incomprehensible. When it’s so hard to know and measure the consequences of our actions – past, present, and future — we’re puzzled and unsure about what to do next. So much seems incomprehensible, not just cause and effect, but also technology and human behavior. More data and information don’t always help since massive amounts of data can overwhelm our thinking.
Confession. Just summarizing BANI here is increasing my anxiety, even though I’ve been contemplating this topic for a few weeks now. Right now I’d prefer to drink an adult beverage and escape into the book I’m reading, If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity. (This new book by first-time author Justin Gregg, a senior research associate with the Dolphin Communication Project, is fascinating and somewhat relevant to this topic). But I digress.
What’s next. Cascio has identified some long-term ways to respond. For example, he sees opportunities in:
- Fortifying brittleness with resilience and slack.
- Easing anxiety with empathy and mindfulness.
- Providing context and flexibility for nonlinearity.
- Tapping into transparency and intuition when faced with incomprehensibility.
For those of us who want to reinforce and save the US’s crumbling systems of democracy and reproductive health care, we’ve got to do more than create more resilience and slack. We need to design interventions and take other steps to counter all the unintended consequences, now obvious and some yet unexplored – which is another topic.
As individuals, we may want to acknowledge that we’ve inherited a world that we can’t control or even fully comprehend. Plus we can’t rely on old playbooks, safety nets, and recent history as they aren’t always workable for current situations.
What is viable is being more intentional in building a preferred future. For instance, consider pausing to deliberately do the following:
- Be curious. Ask questions, especially of others who may have different experiences, knowledge, and points of view.
- Be open to ideas and actions you can take, especially steps that may may have an outsized impact.
- Be ready to adjust and keep adapting, especially if you want to leave this world a better place than you found it.
All the best to all of you. Let’s stay in touch and work toward a better future.
Connect the dots plus dot the “i”s to be more intentional, inquisitive and inclusive
How well are you tapping into the skills and wisdom you need to lead in a BANI world?
All the old playbooks are out-of-date. Instead, you need to reach inside yourself, tap into your wisdom, and connect the dots for yourself and others.
To start, you can use these 5 tips to embrace your humanity and become a better leader.