November 17, 2013 Leave a comment
Have you heard of VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity)? I hadn’t until recently, but I’ve since learned that VUCA is an acronym used to characterize today’s business environment and the organizations in which we work. Apparently it has been around for awhile. and owes at least some portion of its origin to the military.
Beyond its descriptive accuracy, what immediately struck me about VUCA was the significance of the “A” part. Going off-road a bit and thinking of VUCA as an equation rather than solely as the intended acronym, the “A” may be viewed as either a sum or a product of its contributing and preceding variables. In other words, ambiguity becomes the result. Ambiguity about what, you ask? Can’t you tell? Quite a bit, it seems these days.
Yes, it’s truly amazing how much ambiguity exists these days in Corporate America and to what extent employees are expected to accept a steady diet of it. It has definitely become a hallmark of the new normal and presents itself each and everyday as the quiet antithesis of the structural near-certainty in which many of us cut our corporate teeth. My, how things have changed.
Organizations, career paths and succession plans were at one time much clearer. Corporate strategies, business unit objectives, and tactical plans were locked and loaded. With these structural elements in place and not changing much, those skilled at structural analysis were well-equipped to analyze, set course, and prosper. Linearity, clarity, and predictability in large part defined Corporate America and those who were successful within its hallowed halls.
Sometime not all that long ago, things changed. Whatever it was occurred without fanfare or announcement, as the lines really started to blur. To simply imply a visual lack of clarity as full explanation understates the effect. It’s more like the entire building is metaphorically shifting in unfamiliar rhythms. Once sturdy organizational and strategic girders have gone into sway.
Some employees seem to deal with this better than others. The former appear to have more comfort with ambiguity. They consistently demonstrate an ability to combine traditional linear thinking with non-linear adaptation.
SEALing the Deal
Asking my SEAL (Ret) buddy Randy about ambiguity in the workplace was a little bit like asking Babe Ruth about baseball or Einstein about science. As I explained the concept and how ambiguity added up to a considerably more difficult workplace within which to navigate, he just looked at me. As I was processing his initial response, I recalled that his son’s recent Facebook post showed Randy manning a machine gun mounted in the back of a US military pickup truck with the caption, “Dad at the office.” Puts things in perspective, I’d say.
By definition, the SEAL workplace covers it all – sea, air, and land. There’s an awful lot that can go wrong during a SEAL mission, so it makes a lot of sense that VUCA would have applicability to these military operations. Once past his initial bemusement at my explanation of the concept to him, Randy had this to say. “It’s a series of what if’s and thinking on your feet. You have to rely on your teammates, and your teammates have to rely on you. Lives depend on it.”
SEALs have a saying that the only easy day was yesterday. Although increased ambiguity in our own work environments may lead us to similar observations, these guys really deal with some major ambiguity in their work. To combat less clarity and linearity than used to exist in our workplaces, I recommend a conversation with a SEAL as a great way to develop greater awareness that there’s ambiguity and then there’s Ambiguity.