Your environment is changing rapidly. There is a lack of data to make decisions with confidence. Businesses are a sprawling process. You’re finding trends that may or may not be good.
These are four challenges: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. That’s the reality of business today. But they are not new. They are essential to markets, sales, manufacturing, and life in general. So why do some organizations respond better? How do they succeed when others struggle or capitulate?
In the late 1980s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union sparked a surge in global instability, the U.S. Military War College set out to find answers. They developed his VUCA concept, an acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. And they determined that the best VUCA leaders have the ability to create and tell a story of the future, one that is broad enough to adapt to changing circumstances, yet precise enough. did. Create a competitive advantage. They called this skill “vision.”
In the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis, harvard business review We published a four-part series on VUCA detailing the core characteristics of visionary leadership: flexibility, collaboration, foresight, active listening, and clear communication. Since then, War College theory has become a standard resource for modern business in times of uncertain change.
However, in the 2010s, Army researchers conducted a VUCA study and found that the Army War College theory was better at describing leaders than creating them.explained what Great leaders did it with VUCA, but they didn’t explain it. how Cultivating such behaviors in less successful leaders.
To fill that gap, we (the authors of this article) went back to VUCA. Two of us have decades of experience training military commanders and frontline leaders. The third person is a neuroscience expert who creates and communicates plans and other narratives. In collaboration with the U.S. Army Special Operations, we have developed a series of new techniques to train the brain to initiate effective plans and strategies in ambiguous and rapidly changing environments. We’ve tested these techniques outside of the military, in professional sports (like the NFL) and in business (from Fortune 15 companies like Cardinal Health to multibillion-dollar technology companies like Fair). And we integrated that discovery into how the U.S. Army officially awarded the Commendation Medal for “groundbreaking research.”
Here we will show you how. We start with what psychologists call a mindset shift.
More data doesn’t necessarily mean better decision-making
When life is stable and transparent, more data leads to better decisions. But when life becomes unstable or uncertain, data becomes fragile and elusive. There is no option to add more data. Asking for data creates passivity, mission creep, and hesitation.
The key to intelligent leadership in VUCA is making decisions with less data. Low-data decision-making is not possible with computers, so volatility makes AI vulnerable and prone to catastrophic errors. However, making decisions on raw data is an innate ability of the brain that has evolved to function in unpredictable environments.
To activate that power, target “exceptional information.” Exceptional information is an exception to an existing rule. This was at the first meeting of his Homebrew Computer Club on March 5, 1975, when his mainframe engineer Steve Wozniak saw his Altair 8800 microcomputer as a new threat. Or the first sign of opportunity. Other mainframe engineers dismissed the Altair as too small to be useful. . But in Altair’s unusual smallness, Wozniak glimpsed a new story for the future. It is a world where computers are used to work and play games at home. He rushed back to his home and developed the Apple I.
If you think you have to be as good as Wozniak to find exceptional information, think again. You too experienced it as a child when you saw an unusual crack in the sidewalk or a peculiar cloud in the sky and your brain imagined something like: If? To get back to your old way of thinking, you need to break free of the adult brain’s bias toward abstract reasoning. Instead, focus on identifying what’s unique about every person you meet and every place you visit. For example, how a company accountant spends his nights studying Nigerian poetry, or how a local chef blends two spices like no other. When you find yourself experiencing the childlike power of dreaming of a new tomorrow, imagining what will happen next, you will know that you have found something exceptional.
new leadership techniques
Now that you’ve changed your mindset, here are three techniques to train yourself for better VUCA leadership.
Don’t rely on active listening. Take advantage of the new science of active questioning.
Active listening is a time-honored business technique defined by Carl Rogers and Richard Ferson in the 1950s that is effective when there is low urgency and high transparency. However, VUCA increases efficiency by employing proactive questioning.
Proactive questioning reveals exceptional information through a simple technique: Delay the question. why.When asked why, the brain looks to existing rules and previous judgments for answers, while anything new or unexpected is dismissed or left unexplained.prioritize instead what, who, when, where and how — Focus on answers that cause surprise. That surprise is a sign of an exception that forces the brain to develop new rules and judgments. The more of those exceptions that can be collected and brought into view simultaneously, the more effectively leaders can imagine new futures.
We recently worked with a Fortune 50 financial company that had experienced an increasing exodus of junior talent since 2019. To understand what was going on, Human Resources asked the retirees, “Why are you going to a competitor?” and they answered, “For the money.” Therefore, the company increased its offer to secure human resources, but the exodus of human resources continued.
To help companies respond more effectively to this new challenge, we trained our HR staff to defer asking questions. why Instead, ask young talent questions like: what Do you work on weekends? who Would you like to do it with me? where Are you going on vacation? From these questions, the human resources department determined that the company’s young talent was suffering from low life satisfaction due to various reasons. The deep reason for their dissatisfaction was not money. It was just a proxy explanation, used to convey a sense that something was missing and to justify why they wanted to explore outside career options.
By using proactive questioning to identify what was actually missing from young employees’ lives, the company became much more effective at retaining talent. One young executive was dissatisfied with his wife’s difficulty in having children. The company paid for her infertility treatment and hosted a baby shower afterward.
Don’t optimize your plan. Optimize your planner.
In 1957, US President Dwight Eisenhower said: speech In it, he recalled his early days at Army General Staff College, planning for wars that never happened. It was a waste of time, he said. However, this was not the case. Because that process has trained him and his colleagues to be ready for anything. “The reason planning is so important is to ingrain in yourself the nature of the problems you may someday be asked to solve,” he told the audience. In other words, as he famously said in that speech, “Plans are worthless, but plans are everything.”
Not long ago, we were working with a company with $100 million in sales that had an unusually high percentage of senior managers who had not successfully transitioned into leadership. We worked with them and discovered that they believe the key to leadership is optimal planning. Their senior managers brainstormed all possible challenges and opportunities, considered possibilities, and developed a grand strategy. They also had a plan B in case something unexpected happened. But despite planning for every possible contingency, failures continued. Their best-laid plans, like Plan B, failed over and over again. At that point, they lost confidence in their leadership, and so did their team.
These managers prepare for failure by relying on Plan B. In VUCA, Plan B is nothing more than a variation of Plan A. Both are based on the same underlying techniques and assumptions, so when one fails, the other often follows. .
To help senior managers make the transition to leadership, we go beyond Plan B to create a series of plans that cover all possible contingencies, not just the most likely. I trained. Particular emphasis was placed on extreme and unprecedented situations. The purpose of this process is not to create a better plan. The purpose was to develop better planners who can re-plan and react dynamically when plans fail. This approach helped senior managers transition to leadership more than twice as quickly as she did, as measured by the company’s internal metrics.
Don’t separate fear from anger. Use Emotion Reset.
Fear and anger are generally characterized as negative emotions. Leaders are taught to suppress or avoid them through mindfulness, meditation, pop stoicism, and other dissociative techniques. However, although fear and anger can lead to negative behavior, like other emotions, they arise for positive reasons. Specifically, to signal the onset of the flight-or-fight response. This response is triggered when the nervous system detects variability in the environment or other indicators of VUCA.
When we ignore or suppress fear and anger, we deprive ourselves of the warning system that has been tuned through millions of years of biological evolution to alert us when we are under threat and need to switch on our leadership vision. It will be.
That alarm system isn’t perfect. But it can be improved. The next time you feel scared or angry, try recalling in detail a time when you successfully handled a similar situation to remind your brain: I’ve done this before.. We call this technique “emotional reset.” This allows you to quickly assess whether your flight and combat are tailored to your environment. If resetting your emotions subsides your fear or anger, the flight-or-flight response is an overreaction. Since we imagine more VUCA than actually exists, the best course of action is to stick with the existing plan and continue collecting data. However, if your fear and anger remain the same when you reset your emotions, VUCA is real and your situation is urgent. We respond energetically to the urgency by replanning quickly and acting decisively.
We worked on this with an NFL quarterback prospect who improvised too much during a game. To keep his behavior in check, coaches trained him to stick to a game plan. This made him unable to improvise, but it negatively affected his performance, turning him into a robot who had lost his sense of the game.
We studied his game tape so he could continue to improvise without forcing himself. We noticed that his improvisation rate increased after unsuccessful plays. This suggests that it is often caused by excessive fight or flight. We worked with him on an emotional reset to help him better assess the reliability of his fight-or-flight response. We highlighted examples from the game tape where he had successfully executed a planned play and asked him to replay the scene over and over in his mind and look at it in detail. This primes the memory in his brain for immediate recall. Next, we had him create a “trigger”, a memento associated with those memories. He picked up the trigger the next game, staring at it and remembering every bad play. I’ve done this before. Resetting his emotions prevented him from becoming unnecessarily anxious or aggressive, and he consistently followed his coach’s game plan. And by not forcing himself to stick to that plan like a robot, he maintained the ability to improvise in his VUCA, devising new plans and leading his team when needed. .
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Tomorrow will be full of fog and uncertainty. Markets, supply chains, technology, and consumer trends are ambiguous and changing. But you can lead your organization to success. His VUCA theory, unique to the Army, defined visionary leadership. And now you have the special operations method to cultivate it in yourself, and in your future team, using what we have discussed in this article.