Surprise! Responding to VUCA in Organizations

March 7th, 2011 by Patricia Hughes

Last issue we explored our attitudes toward surprise and how we can change habitual responses by focusing on corpus, curiosity and cognizing.  This month we consider how organizations respond to surprise.  How can your company become more resilient in VUCA territory?

VUCA is an acronym that means Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. VUCA describes situations where:

  • Change is dynamic and never-ending
  • There is a lack of predictability and frequent surprise
  • Multiple forces confound issues resulting in chaos and confusion
  • Reality is obscured and confused by misreads
  • There are mixed meanings
  • There is no clear cause-and-effect between actions

Sound familiar?  These elements present real challenges for organizations and can cause the people in them to feel overwhelmed.  Typically organizations view surprise as an unwelcome occurrence, and take actions to avoid or manage it through quality control, planning and standardization.   Often we believe surprise should be avoided and that if we do get surprised, it’s because someone did something wrong.  This is not usually the case – life happens!  Best laid plans cannot possibly consider all factors in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world.

Surprises can be unwelcome, but with specific skills organizational leaders can become more resilient in VUCA territory.  Furthermore, you can learn to see VUCA situations as opportunities for innovation.  Here are a few ways to increase your organization’s resilience in VUCA times.

Communicate!  Communication is often the behavior organizations need to improve most: top-down, bottom-up, side-to-side, etc.  The spread of information increases the likelihood for moving ahead in smarter ways, especially in untested territory.  Use the informal grapevine to communicate in all directions.  Share information, decision making, leadership and power.  Create a culture of courageous conversation and welcome the “elephant in the room.”  Then, listen.  Listen to people on the front lines, to your competition, your customers, your critics, and people on the “fringe” who often see change coming before those in the mainstream.

Generate Leadership at all Levels.  An organization’s ability to adapt to surprise and change doesn’t come from sweeping initiatives dreamed up at headquarters, but from many micro-adaptations throughout the organization.  Distribute and push responsibility for leadership into the organization.  Mobilize everyone to generate observations and solutions about what works and what doesn’t.  Leverage diversity of perspective by inviting the stranger’s perspective.  Host leadership development initiatives and involve a cross-section of players to maximize cross-pollination and innovation.

Embrace Disequilibrium.  Rather than reflexively quelling the discomfort that accompanies surprise and shock, take a breath and stay with it for a while longer than usual.  Get “on the balcony” to see patterns of the big picture.  Question the organization’s loyalty to legacy practices.  Run numerous experiments and reward risk taking.  Know what is non-negotiable and what is expendable.  Learn to develop next practices for tomorrow while excelling at best practices for today.  And, keep your hand on the thermostat of volatility: if the heat is too high, people may become paralyzed with fear; but if the heat is too low, people won’t be motivated to take risks or make difficult decisions.    

Promote Wellness.  Let’s face it: working and living in VUCA times is exhausting.  You and your people need to find sanctuary to reflect, regroup and re-energize, alone and together.  Reach out to confidantes when you lose hope.  Make sure employees have outlets such as discussion forums, retreats, exercise, time off and chocolate.  Celebrate successes, be transparent with goals, and don’t forget Rule #6: Try not to take yourself so seriously.

By practicing even one of these four behaviors, your organization will become more resilient to surprise and change.  You can turn VUCA on its head:  volatility yields to vision, uncertainty yields to understanding; complexity yields to clarity; and ambiguity yields to agility.

Where to begin?  At the next director’s or all-hands meeting, describe the basics of VUCA and engage people in this conversation:

  • What is VUCA about our work right now?
  • How does this organization typically respond to surprise?
  • What can this organization do to be more resilient in VUCA times?

For help being more resilient in messy times, contact Pat at

 © Trillium Leadership Consulting

Welcome to Trillium Leadership blog

March 16th, 2010 by Patricia Hughes

In these blog pages I (Pat) will share short essays, book reviews, and resources related to leadership, coaching and facilitation. Many of the insights will be inspired by my experiences working with groups over the past 20 years, where I have learned about passion, action and making a difference.