Coping and succeeding in a VUCA world

In his latest book, on Leading Innovation, Creativity and Enterprise, speaker, consultant, scientist, musician, and author of eight books on innovation and leadership Peter Cook suggests four strategies for managing our organisations, and ourselves.

In a stable world (Zone 1 in the diagram), where it is clear what we want, and clear how to get there, Cook explains that it makes sense to use data and experience to guide our decisions. This is the kind of world we used to live in.

In a more complex and uncertain world, where we still know what we want but are unsure how to get it (Zone 2), we can use “Close Search” and “Open Search”: we can look for examples of how other people have achieved similar outcomes (either tightly-defined or loosely-defined) and then copy what they did.

In a more volatile and ambiguous world (Zone 3), where we think we still know how to get things done but are uncertain what results we want to create, Cook says the appropriate strategies are to “Just (F***) Do It”, use conflict to get what you want, and use an inspiring vision to keep you going. To an extent, this is the approach being followed by British Prime Minister Theresa May as her way to achieve Brexit: she doesn’t have clear objectives, she thinks she knows how to achieve them (“by negotiation”), and what keeps her and her team going is a vision (albeit a vague one) that things can somehow get better.

And finally, in a world that has become volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (or ‘VUCA’ in the jargon, which is Zone 4), Cook suggests that the appropriate strategies for success include improvisation (which works well for musicians), intuition (which is often good at spotting emerging patterns), and (perhaps half-jokingly) prayer. This VUCA world is where many of us live now.

While Inner Leadership agrees that intuition and improvisation are both important (and provides tools for improving both of them) it also suggests that we can do better.

A sailor on the high seas might find the wind is blowing against her, but she can still tack and jibe across that wind. Even though she changes direction back and forth dramatically, alternately travelling in opposite directions, she still remains focused on the port she is aiming to get to. And if a storm arises, she might even head for a new harbour and wait out the storm. But her ultimate objective remains unchanged.

Inner Leadership believes that success in a VUCA world is like this. Use experience yes, and copy others. Sometimes JFDI, and definitely have an inspiring vision. Improvise when you need to, and draw on the power of your intuition. And as you tack and jibe your way through life, make sure that you also have a clear understanding of the “port” you are ultimately intending to reach. This will provide continuity and focus.

By being clear on your long term aims you give yourself the ability to make better choices about your short term responses when the wind turns against you. And knowing your long term goal also brings inspiration to push through any short term difficulties.

How to identify the long term objective that is right for you, and choose the short term action that is appropriate for now, is the focus of Chapter 4.


Adapted from Inner Leadership.


Image credit: Peter Cook

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