What is a VUCA world?
I was recently teaching a leadership course where I was talking about the backdrop of the world we live in and sharing about the concept of the VUCA world in which we live. For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the concept, VUCA stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. It’s an acronym originally coined by the U.S. Military to describe the dynamics of the world that emerged after the collapse of the U.S.S.R. in the early 1990s. Nowadays, everyone from social scientists to business leaders uses the concept of VUCA to describe the nature of the modern world – a nature that has come about as a result of political shifts, environmental changes, and technological innovation.
You and I live in a VUCA world, and coronavirus has put that reality front and center for us in a way that makes it hard to turn away from.
You might wonder what I mean by that…
Well, our world is volatile in the sense that it’s constantly changing. Change is increasingly rapid, unpredictable, and dramatic, and often sets off ripples and chains of interconnected impact that make it impossible to determine cause and effect. Think about how quickly and dramatically the spread of coronavirus has shifted our day to day lives. I don’t know about you, but in January, I wasn’t thinking about social distancing from my fellow humans, indefinite school closures, and working side by side with my partner from my couch. Heck, if I’m honest, I wasn’t even thinking about that three weeks ago…and yet this is now my reality for the foreseeable future.
Our world is uncertain in the sense that it’s becoming harder and harder to anticipate events and predict how they will unfold. It’s harder and harder to use the past as a model for what the future will look like, which makes it much more difficult to backward plan everything from our individual career paths to larger-scale business development to social support programs. Our ability to look to the past as a model for how to move forward in this coronavirus crisis is limited. Certainly, there have been moments in history where pandemics have occurred, AND modern society is both more interconnected and technologically advanced than it’s ever been, which makes this a very different moment in time than say the days of the bubonic plague. You can see the uncertainty we are all facing reflected in the endless hypothesizing that’s occurring across every media channel: Will the stock market crash? It’s not certain. This could be a few months or it could last a year. We don’t know.
Our world is complex in the sense that the challenges we face and therefore the solutions we seek are more nuanced and multi-layered and thus harder to understand and to generate. Nowadays, it can be quite challenging to pinpoint a single root cause for an effect and to chart a clear, correct, and singular path forward to fix it. Thus, we are often making decisions and taking action within a web of reactions and counter-reactions without knowing whether the action we are taking will be a key lever in solving our challenge or if it will set off a chain reaction of other challenges to solve. If we step back and think about the coronavirus crisis – the challenge we currently face as a world people isn’t just one of public health. Yes, we need to ask and answer the question: How do we stop the spread of coronavirus so that fewer people get sick and die? And, coronavirus itself has created a whole host of interconnected questions at all altitudes of society that we also need to attune to and engage with such as: How do we ensure that our most vulnerable citizens have places to live and food to eat? How do we keep our economy afloat? How do we educate and support our youth? And so forth. Where to start? Often it can be very difficult to discern.
Finally, our world is ambiguous in the sense that our individual contexts and situations are so diverse that a one size fits all approach rarely works anymore. Often what we call “best practices” are less out of the box solutions and more a toolkit of strategies that we must learn to adapt and apply to our unique context. There is more paradox and contradiction alive in our lives than ever before; it’s hard to walk “the right path” because there’s no such thing as a universal “right path” – what seems “right and good” in one context may be deeply harmful in another. For my fellow TV watchers and The Good Place fans, this principle of ambiguity is perfectly represented for me when the characters finally realize that the reason Heaven has had so few new recruits over the last hundred years is that due to the interconnectedness of the modern world, it’s much harder for an individual to take any action that doesn’t cause someone or something somewhere some harm. In the end, I think it’s unlikely that stopping the spread of coronavirus and ameliorating its impact on individuals, communities, businesses, and other systems will happen as a result of a single widespread, one size fits all plan stemming from the national government. Instead, it will likely be a combination of larger structural support married with local community creativity that will provide the insights, solutions, and resources necessary to lead forward in this crisis.
How do we navigate a VUCA world?
Great – so we live in a VUCA world, how do we navigate that?
First, I think we need to accept it. In my work with individuals and organizations and in my own life, I often see us working in opposition to the reality that we live in a VUCA world. We don’t want to accept that the world around us is not as stable either as it once was or as we wish it would be, so we engage all sorts of creative strategies to resist what is.
Just this morning, I found myself running through a variety of scenarios for how the next couple of months could play out and how that might impact a bunch of upcoming plans – namely my wedding in Whistler, Canada this September. There’s nothing inherently wrong with thinking down the line – but I noticed that after a while I started spinning on my options. Looking at my options turned into analyzing the most likely option, which turned into contingency planning for the worst-case scenario (i.e. cancellation), which turned into assuming that the worst-case scenario was definitely going to happen, which resulted in a task list of actions to take right now to get out ahead of this, which turned into a giant headache and a feeling that the world was closing in on me. Finally, I was able to step back and recognize: “Oh, this is me resisting the reality of now, that things are VUCA, and I don’t actually know or really have any way to know right now what will be true in September. I can consider my options, but I can’t really meaningfully choose one, and it doesn’t make a lot of sense to keep hacking away at this right now.” So I let it be…and I’ll circle back when this decision becomes more proximate. Resistance and acceptance.
On an organizational level, this morning, I was on a call with a CEO who was encouraging his now remote staff to “just go about business as usual” and to “pretend none of this is happening.” While I have so much empathy for this leader, believe that his response is human and was an attempt to feel and exert some sense of control in a situation where so much was out of his control, I also think that it denies the reality of now. I imagine that if he persists in this approach, he may make decisions that negatively impact his business and his staff. He might force business at a time when customers are not receptive, thereby straining relationships, or he might require levels of productivity from staff that aren’t tenable given the constraints of working from home, thereby creating culture challenges. Resistance of reality.
An hour later, I was listening in on my fiancee’s all-hands meeting and experienced a very different leadership approach, one that embraced the reality of now. The CEO began by acknowledging the upheaval that people, staff and customers, were facing, normalizing the stress that people were feeling, and stating that self and family care were the most important thing at this moment in time. He explicitly named that the rules of the game had changed, that productivity would likely vary from person to person given people’s situation and that that was to be expected, encouraged patience and empathy among teammates as individuals navigated health challenges, elder, and family care and other important personal tasks. He gave people explicit permission to slow down. Then he spoke about the state of the company – he named what he could currently see into and what he couldn’t, what people could expect in terms of communication for him, and how to engage customers in humane ways. At the end, he thanked his entire staff for their efforts and their leadership and reiterated that while there were a lot of unknowns, the company would be moving forward one step at a time, both looking ahead and trying not to get too far ahead of itself out of fear. I don’t work for this company, but I felt better just hearing this man talk, and I hypothesize that many others did as well. I imagine his staff felt more seen and acknowledged than that of the first CEO. I imagine his customers will as well, and it will be interesting to see how his choice to acknowledge the reality ripples out in impact. Will it engender more loyalty from staff? Will it result in stronger customer relationships? More business in the long run? We shall see.
Ultimately, whether as individuals or as systems, I wholeheartedly believe we need to get to a place of acceptance that VUCA is the reality of today…and of the future as it is likely to continue to be. No amount of wishing or resisting is going to change that; it’s simply going to render us less resourced to navigate the inevitable volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity that will continue to come our way.
Accepting that we live in a VUCA world is a vulnerable thing to get present to. It tends to stir up a lot of intense emotions in people – fear, anger, & sadness – to name a few. If and when you notice yourself feeling these things, know that this is normal – there is nothing inherently wrong with or broken about you. You are human, and vulnerability is a part of the human experience.
At the same time, I also invite you to consider that the path to a greater sense of groundedness and personal power in a world that can often feel overwhelming is not about becoming numb to emotions that feel vulnerable. Instead, it’s about developing ways of thinking and operating that help you be with whatever you’re experiencing as it emerges. It’s about understanding that every experience you have (emotional or otherwise) is impermanent and moving through your life with less resistance and more creativity.
It’s not about arriving at a place in your life where you have no painful experiences or you deny the practical realities of living in volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous times. Instead, it’s about coming into practices that help you turn towards those experiences with a sense of curiosity, self-possession and resourcefulness that transcends circumstances so that you can take action in ways that your context requires of you.
Public figures like Ellie Weisel, Maya Angelou, Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela show us that this is possible…and these are just a few, very visible examples. All around the world and across history, countless individuals have and do face challenges & oppression that seemingly strip them of their efficacy from the outside in, yet they maintain a sense of power from the inside out.
That is the challenge here:
In a world which often feels like it strips us of a sense of power from the outside in, how do we cultivate a sense of power from the inside out?
I believe that we start doing this by developing a greater awareness of & appreciation for ourselves (and others) as emotional beings and by building skills & practices that help us name, honor, & navigate the emotions that go along with change – fear, loss, grief – to name a few.
Self-awareness & emotional management have often been considered “soft skills” or “nice to haves,” not “must-haves.” Consider that many of us were not & are not taught these things in school. We still largely consider organizations & businesses that hire & promote based on EQ to be “progressive” not “standard.” Yet in a world where volatility, uncertainty, complexity, & ambiguity are increasingly the norm, emotional intelligence is not just increasingly valuable, it’s increasingly necessary.
And at the heart of emotional intelligence is self-awareness & emotional self-management. We need to know ourselves – how we perceive & make meaning of the world, what we feel, how our emotions & inner stories shape the actions we take & the impact that has on others & outcomes. We need to learn how to identify & manage our own emotional triggers, notice when we are getting in our way & choose other ways of operating. We need to be able to get present to our own shortcomings, acknowledge & address them honestly and without shaming ourselves. We need to know how to identify & communicate our needs, ask for & receive support, set & honor boundaries, lean into & trust our strengths. We need to know how to care for & sustain ourselves – not just financially & physically, but emotionally, psychologically, & spiritually.
In other words, we need skills & practices that help us individually work through what we feel (rather than ignore, dismiss or repress it). When we are familiar with our own internal landscape, we not only become more resilient & adaptable personally, we also become better colleagues, parents, partners, & friends for others. We are more empathic. We are more resourced to collaborate & engage others in healthy, productive ways.
The challenges that we face as a society are too big & too complex for any one person to solve. We must collaborate and engage our collective wisdom in order to find out way through this VUCA world. And, at the same time, it is very hard to collaborate well when our individual “stuff” is in the way, and we aren’t aware of that “stuff” or don’t have tools to work with it.
Knowing how you work gives you insight into and empathy for how humans work. Having the practical tools & internal muscles to work with rather than against your own self helps you develop tools & strategies to work with other people’s emotions. There is a ripple effect here. And this ripple effect is what will help make us all more resilient & adaptable in a VUCA world. It’s what will help us show up in powerful & intentional ways so that we can individually & collectively find our way forward through really hard & complex stuff (like this coronavirus pandemic) without becoming completely overwhelmed by it.
How can I be more present & self aware now?
Chosen or not, the coronavirus crisis is a classroom in which we can grow & develop our skills in navigating this VUCA world at a personal level, a community level & a global level…if we want & choose to: Emotions are heightened (and thus we can’t just repress them). Rituals & routines have been disrupted (and thus we can’t just cope & hack our way through the day). The change we’re experiencing is so obvious that we can’t simply ignore its impact; instead we have to feel & deal…or we will collapse & burn out.
Here is a simple exercise that I use to grow my own self-awareness, as well as to feel & deal when change comes calling:
- Check-in with my body: What sensations are present in my physical body right now?
- Check-in with my heart: What emotions are present for me right now?
- Check-in with my mind: What is my mind telling me I’m experiencing? How aligned are my thoughts to what my body senses & my heart feels?
- Check-in with my gut: What’s most true & most important here? What, if any, action am I being called to take in this moment?
Checking in and asking these questions is a practice that helps me learn more about myself – what I’m feeling, thinking & experiencing – in the moment & overtime. It helps me identify where I’m at & what I might need or want to do. It helps me check in with my major information centers – my physical body, my emotions, my mind & my gut – so I get a variety of data to make decisions from.
This exercise is a daily ritual for me (i.e. I do it right as I wake up & right before I go to bed…and not just when things are particularly challenging). And it’s also a strategy I use to navigate moments of overwhelm & anxiety as they come up (i.e. When I start to feel dwarfed or anxious, I pause and do this check-in). Finally, it’s an activity that I can expand & contract based on how much time I have – I’ve used this structure for a 30-minute meditation as well as a 30 second or 3-minute check-in.
I recommend that you find a comfortable position where your body is in contact with something solid – the floor, a chair, the bed – to do this exercise. I also recommend that you close your eyes. Closing your eyes removes visual distractions & can help you tap into your inner world more easily.
STEP 1 – Check in with your body.
Why Do This: Our physical bodies give us clues to what we are experiencing & needing often before our minds can put words to them. Tense shoulders might indicate we are stressing about something. Tingling might indicate we’re anxious or excited and need to work off some energy. Often we ignore or are not in touch with what our body is telling us until the physical sensations get so intense that we can’t avoid them. I think about moments when my lower back starts to hurt like crazy, and I realize I’ve been sitting for hours without moving – that pain didn’t just materialize all at once. It built, and I missed it. By learning to check in with our physical bodies regularly, we train ourselves to see them as valuable sources of information about our human experience. We also grow our ability to spot needs & respond to them before they overinflate, and we also learn to see patterns in how our body responds to other stimuli inside & around us. For example, I’ve come to notice that each time I feel anger, my right hip starts to hurt – so when I feel that hip hurting, I ask myself “Are we angry about something? What is that?”
How To Do This: Start at your toes. Bring your attention to each part of your body. Wiggle or flex that part if it feels accessible to you. Notice if you feel any sensations in that part of your body – tension, heat, coldness, tingling. (If you’re looking for words to describe sensations, check out this chart.) No need to try and change anything about what you notice, just sense it. Name it. Observe it. Get curious about it. Experience it.
STEP 2 – Check in with your heart.
Why Do This: Our heart center is our emotional center. Our emotions give us clues to how we are really doing & really feeling beyond words or rational thought. Keep in mind that feelings aren’t necessarily logical – they don’t always make sense, but they are real. While we often like to believe that humans are rational beings, psychological research shows us that we often make decisions from the emotional part of our brains, especially under stress. This means that when we don’t know how we are feeling, we don’t know the source from which we are acting or making decisions. Just yesterday, I was telling my fiancee about a rapid-fire email exchange I had with a colleague, and he said, “You were mad, huh?” I paused – I didn’t think I was mad, and I certainly didn’t think that my response came from an angry place. However, when I checked in with my heart, I realized, “Oh yes, anger is here.” And it made me pause – I didn’t think I took action from a place of anger, yet my fiance made that connection from the outside looking in. I had to wonder my colleague received & perceived my response. If I’d realized earlier that I was angry in the moment, I might have taken a different path.
How To Do This: Put your hand over your heart, if that feels good to you. Ask yourself: “What am I feeling right now?” Patiently wait for the answer. It might come immediately. It might not. Get curious about how what you’re feeling might be showing up in your body. Practice naming whatever comes up without trying to change it. Choose singular, simple words to describe what you are feeling…rather than long explanatory phrases. For example, try saying “Anger is here” or “Sadness is here” rather than something like “I’m feeling like everything is wrong and I can’t do anything right.” This is more of a story than an emotion, and it can take us away from actually experiencing the emotion. Keep in mind that there are six basic emotions: anger, disgust, happiness, sadness, fear, & surprise – and then lots of different gradients of each. Start by identifying &. naming what you feel using these words so you learn to recognize simple emotions. As you get better at identifying what you’re feeling, see if you can identify more nuanced versions of the basic emotions. This chart can help. If you get stuck and nothing comes up what you ask yourself “What am I feeling right now?” prompt yourself with each of the basic emotions and see if any of them feel true to your experience: “Is what I’m feeling right now sadness?” “Is it fear?”
STEP 3 – Check in with your mind.
Why Do This: While our body is the place that we sense our experience and our heart is the place where we feel our experience, our mind is the place where we make meaning of our experiences. Thoughts are stories we construct about what’s happening to us and around us. Our thoughts are were we predict, judge, assume, decide, analyze, interpret, etc. Our thoughts are also where our biases & projections live and where our socialization resides. Our thoughts are where the “have tos, musts, shoulds and should haves” live. The data we get from our minds is the most interpretative, the most likely to be influenced by fear & bias, and thus the least likely of the three data centers to truly represent where we are at in any given moment. When the body hurts, it hurts…period. When the heart is sad, it’s sad…period. But when you feel hurt and sad, how many times has your mind pretended you weren’t or told you you shouldn’t be or made up an altogether different story about what you were experiencing? Yesterday, my shoulders hurt and I felt sad at the loss of a friend, and my mind told me I was “fine.” So I pretended I was fine & forced myself to act from that place. At the end of the day, my body hurt more, I was so frustrated. I snapped at my fiance, cried when dinner didn’t come out perfectly. All because I listened to my mind – which said, “You’re fine” rather than my body & heart which were clearly saying something else. So many of us have been taught that the mind is the most valuable (if not the only) center of knowing & decision making. We’ve been conditioned to listen to our mind, even when it drives us to ignore the experience we are having & the emotions we are feeling…and this means that many of us, especially in times of change & transition are not actually attending to the truest, most real and basic needs we have. Notice how we check in with the mind after we check in with the body & the heart. That’s because checking in with our mind helps us recognize when the stories we are telling ourselves might be contrary to what’s really true for us…and gives us the chance to change how we think about a situation so that we honor what our bodies & hearts are telling us we need.
How To Do This: Ask yourself: “What is the story I’m telling myself about what I’m experiencing or where I’m at right? How aligned is this story to what my body & heart are telling me?” Notice your thoughts. No need to judge them or try to change them. Just notice what they are saying. Notice how similar to or different from your body & heart experience their message is. If you like to journal or want to “see” your thoughts, you might write them down, one by one and look at them. Notice if anything seems distorted, binary, or judgmental. Notice if a particular thought provokes any emotion in your heart (ex: fear) or any sensation in your body (ex: a twinge in your neck). Get curious about connections between what’s happening in your mind and what’s happening in other parts of your body.
STEP 4 – Check in with your gut.
Why Do This: Our gut is our intuitive center – our instinctive sense of what’s most true for us in any moment. Intuition is not the same thing as fear or desire. Fear & desire tend to have a pull or sense of compulsion or draw to them. Intuition is the still small voice that says, “This is true.” It has no agenda, it doesn’t try to convince us, and it doesn’t beat up on us based on the action the we take or don’t take. It’s just a deep clear sense of knowing about what’s real (whether we like it or prefer it to be or not). Tapping into your intuition helps us discern what the next right thing for us to do in any moment is. Some of us are deeply in touch with our intuitive centers. We can tap into them at will and cut through what we are feeling and thinking. Some of us are not as in touch with our gut and have to learn to tap into that center over time and through practice. Ultimately, checking in regularly with your gut helps you grow the muscle of knowing what is really going on and thus gives you an opportunity to take action to honor that truth (or not). When we take action that honors what’s real, we build trust with ourselves, our confidence grows, our belief that we can find our way forward when the path is unclear grows…and this makes us more resilient in navigating a VUCA world. For example, this morning when I woke up, I worked through this check-in practice – I noticed that I had a lot of pain in my lower legs (I’d done a bunch of squats & deadlifts yesterday), that my eyelids were heavy & my body felt drowsier than usual (I went to bed late & didn’t sleep well). I also noticed that my heart felt sad (I recently lost a friend and that feels very tender). And I noticed that my mind was saying things like “You need to get up and go trail running. It’s on the schedule. You need to stay on top of your exercise during this quarantine. You need to be dressed and ready by 9 am for your first call. Let’s go. No excuses.” Finally, I checked in with my gut. I asked, “What’s the truest thing here right now? What’s the next right thing for me to do?” And I heard this tiny quiet voice calmly say, “You’re tired, sad & in pain. Let the trail running be for now. Sleep in for another hour and check in again then.” So that’s what I did. By checking in with my gut, I was able to honor where I was at in the moment and take it from there. This is a pattern – my gut isn’t usually that forward planning. It doesn’t necessarily always give me the five-year plan of what to do, but it always tells me what to do now. I notice that the more I honor what it’s telling me to do now (i.e. “Stand up, sit down, close that computer, go to sleep, respond to that email”) the more I find my way through things step by step, moment by moment and the more I learn to trust my gut as a guide when times are hard.
How To Do This: Place your hands on your stomach if that feels accessible to you. Ask yourself: “What is most true & important for me right now? What do I need to honor? What, if any, action am I being called to take in this moment?” Get curious. Notice what comes up for you, where it originates in your body and any energy surrounding it. Notice any stillness, sense of calm or groundedness. Notice anything to feels like it’s pushing, pulling, or resisting. Notice if what you’re being called to act on is small and present or bigger and more futuristic. If you find yourself getting pulled into an intense conversation or dialogue in your mind, see if you can bring yourself back to center and ask the question again with a smaller focus: “What am I being called to do in the next 30 minutes? In the next 3 minutes? In the next 30 seconds?” Make the focus smaller until you hear a simple answer you can act on now.
One final note…
This check-in practice is a practice that helps me and those I work with navigate the complexity of the modern world and the ambiguity of this moment in time because it helps us acknowledge & work with emotions, discern where we are at physically, emotionally, & psychologically at any moment in time and take action that honors present needs while building a path forward to future aspirations. It’s a practice that helps us stay present and not get too far out ahead of ourselves into territory that we either can’t control or that isn’t proximate enough for us to make good decisions about…getting too far out ahead of ourselves is one way that we amplify overwhelm.
While this practice is a way to know yourself more and to navigate through ambiguity & complexity, as with all strategies in this VUCA world, I invite you to let go of the idea that it is a one size fits all out of the box solution that you’ll effortlessly apply to solve all your challenges. It’s a starting point for inquiry, and you’ll likely benefit from applying & adapting it as the context of your life & circumstance requires. For example, you may want to tweak the language of the prompting questions I offered as you learn what resonates with you.
Keep in mind that you may experience tension or resistance as you try to apply this tool. That might sound like:
- This is stupid.
- This is too simple or too hard.
- This doesn’t seem that meaningful.
- Nothing is happening. I guess this isn’t working for me.
Resistance is normal & expected. Keep in mind that much of what I’m inviting you to try on flies in the face of what our individualistic, capitalistic, & achievement-oriented society teaches and rewards us for and so it often feels weird & uncomfortable. Resistance is not an indicator that you are doing anything “wrong” or that the practice is not working. It’s simply a reflection of your growing edge as an individual and our growing edge as a society…practicing getting present to what is true first…so that we can ultimately build forward from where we are in conscious, resourced, and humane ways.