The Biggest Challenges In Today's Volatile Environment

Jul 28, 2017 4 Min Read
A leader at crossroads, unsure how to respond to a challenging situation
In an ever changing VUCA environment - an agile mindset is required

I work with many outstanding leaders with extraordinary competencies; they are brilliant people from whom I’ve learned a great deal. I am grateful and privileged to be able to work with people like this.

Almost every one of them says they are overwhelmed and worried about not living up to their responsibilities. They are bombarded with emails, meetings, and expectations that are almost impossible to meet.

They are experiencing increasing demand from multiple directions, with challenges that do not stop growing in size and scope. Many have not heard of VUCA but all suffer from it. I believe it is very possible that leading today – in a VUCA world – is the biggest challenge leaders have faced.

The VUCA concept was introduced sometime in the early 90s by the US Army War College to refer to the multilateral world that emerged after the end of the Cold War and it was characterised as being more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous than ever before.

In a business context, the VUCA concept took off after the global financial crisis in 2008 and 2009. Since then, it has featured heavily in the development of leadership skills in various organisations. The concept describes a business environment characterised by:
Volatility – A brutal increase in four dimensions of the changes that we face today: the type, speed, volume, and scale.
Uncertainty – As a result of the Volatility, we are unable to predict future events.
Complexity – Widespread confusion, with no clear connection between cause and effect, affects all organisations nowadays.
Ambiguity – There is a lack of precision, and the existence of multiple meanings within the conditions surrounding us.

We are dealing with a world where change is ever greater; future is less predictable; options increase exponentially, and the way we think about these options has undoubtedly changed.

Today, leaders must make decisions faster, processing huge amounts of information at a time when everything is more interconnected than ever before. We may think that this has been the case for every generation throughout the different periods in history; surely the feeling must be the same.
Related articleHow The Smartest Leaders Cope With Constant Change 
But, one of our biggest problems is that we have been raised to believe that the world is predictable. We need to work with a different mindset, where the focus and way of thinking have to shift from what is probable to what is possible.

Again, how does one prepare for it? How do we change this mindset?

Our brain loves to categorise and learn from the past to secure our future. This has worked well for thousands of years. Without this ability to predict the future based on the past and identify the risks and opportunities, we would have disappeared as a species.

This complex internal evolutionary system has done an incredible job of protecting us and allowing us to prosper for millennia, but right now, it is beginning to fail and limit us.

In the VUCA environment, we need to focus on what is possible (because anything can happen) rather than what is likely to occur (which is determined by the past).

Making this change, where we must go from trying to figure out what is most likely, to seeing the possibilities that lie before us, is easier said than done. Research repeatedly shows this is something that does not please our brain.

Our general pattern is to cut, reduce and simplify information. To achieve this change, we need to create new habits and new patterns. We need to talk to each other differently, collect information differently, and develop different strategies and plans for the future.

There are four habits that can help us evolve and improve our ability to deal with higher levels of complexity. These four habits are easy to implement:

  • Ask different types of questions
  • Take on multiple perspectives
  • Develop a systemic vision
  • Look at the whole picture; take a step back to see what’s possible

This challenge is so critical that our survival depends on it. I believe there are strategies to learn not only to survive, but also to thrive in our environment.

We may as well enjoy it while we change our mindset. That’s what leadership development and coaching is actually about.

This article was first published on Oxford Leadership.

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Pablo is a Fellow of Oxford Leadership. He has been involved in projects of Leadership Development and Organisational Transformation both as a Consultant, and as a Programme Leader in a number of multinational companies. Based in Spain, Pablo works in Spanish, English and Catalan.

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