Curbing Career Fears

Understand and use VUCA to manage threats

by Henry J. Lindborg

Books on careers usually contain some advice on strategic thinking. They suggest getting the big picture, sometimes by applying the tools and techniques of business planning.

This can be done, for example, by conducting a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) analysis of your career. Sometimes, the books describe using a political, economic, social and technological trends approach to determine what is affecting you. While these are useful exercises, I’ve noticed lately that discussing threats is more emotionally charged than in past.

Perhaps we’re conditioned by the newspapers and books we read about threats to national security,1 or our enhanced understanding of risk in enterprise management, quality systems (think Toyota) or lean projects. More personally, we fear losing our jobs. I’ve heard professionals in areas such as manufacturing, healthcare, technology, publishing, sales and education candidly express such fears.

Given the challenge of coping with threats, I’ve applied another strategic model to career development: VUCA, an acronym that stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

Coping with threat

VUCA—developed for leadership education at the United States Army War College in Carlisle, PA—isn’t a new term. In 1994, Fortune reported it was used so often that it had become something of a cliché. It has since, however, gained wider currency as more of us face a world rich with VUCA.2

Formulated by leadership and organizational development guru T. Owen Jacobs,3 VUCA’s four elements describe the external environment:

  1. Volatility has to do with the rate of change to which organizations and individuals must adapt. The more rapid the change, the greater the difficulty in adapting.
  2. Uncertainty occurs because our knowledge is inadequate—we can’t predict everything. Organizations once appeared  stable and were built on rational planning and efficient management. They offered predictable career paths. This is no longer the case.
  3. Complexity arises from multiple systems interacting at once. As quality professionals, we understand root causes are difficult to uncover.
  4. Ambiguity comes into play as it becomes difficult to make sense of things, and events take on multiple meanings.

My simple approach to using VUCA’s four elements to manage threats is to divide a sheet of paper into four columns. The first column lists each VUCA element. The second is labeled "me," and the third is "my organization." The fourth column is "trends," which must be supported by objective, outside information. The information in the other three columns relies on your own perceptions.

If the exercise is conducted in a group, a facilitator can briefly explain each VUCA element and distribute a resource on trends. Participants—yourself or a group—first list how each element affects you and your organization. You might consider these questions: How has rapid change affected you? Where do you feel greater uncertainty? How has the environment become more complex and difficult to interpret?

After brainstorming each element, participants consult a resource on trends, using the fourth column to explore the economic, social and professional changes most affecting them and their organization.

The trends column is significant because it connects individual experience and reflection to a systematic understanding of what is affecting us now and shaping our future. Two useful resources are ASQ’s Future of Quality Study4 and the World Future Society’s reports.5 Allot time for reading about trends, adding them to the chart and discussing their implications.

Understanding the outcomes

At least four benefits have been discovered by using this approach. First, the categories overlap, which is an advantage. In fact, it assists us in seeing connections. Change is clearly related to uncertainty and ambiguity, because it triggers emotional response. Second, participants’ systems skills can be enlisted to enrich discussion. Third, focus is kept on careers. Participants should ask how they can craft a strategy to reduce stress and enhance their success. Finally, VUCA can be reinterpreted for positive action, rather than fear.

Quality professionals are called on to be systems thinkers. They understand dynamic complexity, which Peter Senge describes as, "Situations where cause and effect are subtle, and where the effects over time of interventions are not obvious."6 Professionals can use their systems skills to further explore career issues.

At the same time, though, the exercise is not just about intellect. Discussing career threats can be profoundly emotional and involve professional identity and loss. Some participants may find uncertainty and ambiguity painful as they pass through what William Bridges calls the neutral zone of personal transition. "For many people, the neutral zone is essentially one of emptiness in which the old reality looks transparent and nothing feels solid anymore,"7 he writes.

Fortunately, VUCA can present opportunity, a positive in SWOT analysis. "The VUCA world is sparking new ways of thinking and acting—ways to deal with the original dark meaning"8 Bob Johansen writes. He suggests substituting vision for volatility to set direction; understanding for uncertainty to practice listening and learning; clarity for complexity to make sense of the world in ordinary language; and, finally, agility for ambiguity to prepare for inevitable surprises.

Try variations of this simple tool. It’s OK to combine it with others you know. It can broaden your strategic career horizons.

References and notes

  1. Richard A. Clarke and Robert K. Knake, Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What To Do About It, Harper Collins, 2010.
  2. Lee Smith and Rajiv Rao, "New Ideas From the Army (Really)," Fortune, Vol. 130, No. 6, p. 203.
  3. The VUCA concept has mainly been applied to strategic leadership. For more information, see T. Owen Jacobs, Strategic Leadership: The Competitive Edge, National Defense University Press, 2002.
  4. ASQ conducts its "Future of Quality Study" every three years. The first one was done in 1999, and the last iteration was in 2008. QP publishes articles based on the studies’ results, which are available to ASQ members. For a clear explanation of current trends, see Marvin J. Cetron and Owen Davies, "Trends Shaping Tomorrow’s World: Economic and Social Trends and Their Impacts," The Futurist (May-June 2010), pp. 35-50.
  5. For more information about the World Future Society, visit www.wfs.org.
  6. Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Doubleday, 2006, p. 71.
  7. William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, Cambridge, MA, 2004, p. 139.
  8. Bob Johansen, Get There Early: Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present, Berrett-Koehler, 2007, pp. 49-54.

Henry J. Lindborg is executive director and CEO of the National Institute for Quality Improvement, which provides consulting in strategic planning, organizational development and assessment. He holds a doctorate from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and teaches in a leadership and quality graduate program. Lindborg is past chair of ASQ’s Education Division and of the Education and Training Board. He also chairs the IEEE-USA’s Career Workforce Policy Committee.

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