VUCA – Process trumps Outputs

Tom GibbonsChange, Organization Development, Presence, Social Construction, Strategy, Uncertainty5 Comments

This post is a little longer than our usual ones – we hope you will bear with us and take the time to read it in its entirety and perhaps make a comment.

Two weeks ago I was talking to one of our Network Members and the topic of VUCA came up.  This acronym for environments that are Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous is getting considerable attention in the leadership development area over the past while.  The focus is developing leaders that can deal effectively with and perhaps even thrive in these environments and there are a number of approaches to this development.  It was interesting that the topic came up since I had been thinking about writing a blog post on the topic for a little while.

A couple of mornings after this conversation I received a phone call that my 91 year old and quite independent mother had suffered a stroke.  It seemed that I had been thrust unexpectedly into a VUCA environment.  My Mom lives a couple of hours away so I got to the hospital as quickly as possible and indeed it was a VUCA environment as tests were being done, capacity being checked, questions being asked and answered as best possible; all in a flurry of activity that like the entire day seemed somehow blurry.

I drove home that night and then headed back the next morning and it was then, in the quiet of a drive that it struck me that there were actually numerous VUCA environments at play and that the way we tend to think about VUCA and development might be heading in the direction of making it another fad, in a long line of fads in the area of organization development.

That day, in the hospital I could see numerous VUCA environments.  Certainly there was me, and my spouse, my sister and the rest of the family we were communicating with.  There were the health care professionals that more or less work each day in that environment.  But what struck me was that my Mom and the 3 other stroke patients in her room were deeper into an environment truly described by the acronym VUCA than any of us were.

And there were fundamental and important differences in the environments and the way ‘we were’ in those environments.

Some of the most striking differences:

  1. Those of us ‘dealing’ with the environment were really trying to reduce the amount of VUCA around us ; we were far enough removed from the actual environment of the experience that we tried to analyze and make sense of what was going on and figure out what we could do. Let’s call this abstracted.
  1. Those deeper into the meaning of those VUCA words were simply in the experience, intensely present and not separate at all. They were responding in the immediate moment.  Let’s call this immersed.
  1. Those of us dealing with things relied heavily on trusted methods, systems and patterns to help us reduce the amount of VUCA and make sense of what was going on. Let’s called this learned sense making.
  1. Those deeper into the experience did not really care about those trusted methods; they produced very little sense making of what was happening. In fact, very little sense could be made of things outside of what was happening in the present moment.  Let’s call this emergent sense making.
  1. Those of us dealing with things had the possibility of thinking about how we might behave ‘next’. We could rely on past experience and learned behavior to consider what we might do.  Let’s call this acting from knowledge.
  1. Those deeper really seemed to have very little idea how they might react and behave. Let’s call this responding to immediate experience.

So let’s be clear about what we mean and are doing when we talk about development and VUCA environments.  It’s the odd numbers above.  We are trying to help people get better at:

Abstracting themselves enough from the situation that they can make sense of it from prior, learned experience and then acting from this knowledge to reduce the amount of VUCA in their environment.

Yes, this is important work, and it’s also the work that so easily can push VUCA and this work into the large pile of fads that have come before it.

Why?  Because basically we are trying to help people get better at doing what they already do in environments where a lot of the things we already do simply do not work.  No matter how good you get at them.

I actually think many of the VUCA environments we find ourselves in are much more like the environments my Mom and her roommates were in than the controllable, predictable environments our dominant organizational processes are built to manage.

In that room of 4 stroke patients were 4 different VUCA environments and 4 very different responses.  In the span of just a couple of hours I heard these responses:

  • My Mom had a right hemisphere stroke so still had language and reasoning, but was bedridden. A nurse mentioned to my Mom she didn’t complain much and my Mom responded that she never had had much reason to (this coming from a kid raised in the depression who told me stories of sometimes having enough to give the ‘hobos’ who sat on their front step ketchup sandwiches for dinner).
  • The person in the bed right next to my Mom was in terrible pain and I heard her say ‘I can’t take this anymore, I can’t take this anymore.’
  • Across the room I heard in a scared, shaky voice, ‘Somebody help me, somebody help me’, after her family had left.
  • And from one bed was silence, quietly sleeping and then talking on the phone amid these other scenarios.

So which one of those responses was the best one?  Don’t kid yourself here, we judge almost immediately and developing VUCA capacity is definitely looking for best responses.  Pretty soon we’ll have measurements for those responses and ‘best’ will become a number to be measured up to.

I could certainly feel myself judging those responses and thought we had come out pretty good with my Mom’s response.  Imagine how quickly and more confidently we will judge a leader’s VUCA response when no mental capacity has been compromised.  And because we are not really changing what will be measured, even though those what’s won’t work very well no matter what, those judgments will be harsh, development will be questioned and soon we will be looking for the next acronym to hang our OD hats on.

What might it be like trying to help develop based on the even numbers above?  Perhaps something like this…. ?

A capacity to be present to the current and local scenario, especially the local interactions among those you trust and not putting too much weight on trusted methods of sense making, but not letting go of them either.  A capacity to be alright with being afraid of not knowing really what to do but knowing you will do something to the best of your ability with those around you.  You will move forward and see what happens.

The dominant organizational processes that become largely irrelevant as they are used now in environments defined by the words of VUCA include:

  • Strategic plans
  • Role descriptions
  • Change management plans
  • Performance management systems
  • Communication plans
  • Budgets
  • Competencies
  • Hierarchy
  • and others…..?

It’s not that these areas of focus are not important, but what we see currently as the critical outputs of these areas of focus definitely are not important.  What is important is the process of these areas of focus;  staying very present to the emergent patterns of interaction as we move forward in these areas.  Output is far less important than process in VUCA environments.

Every one of those areas above is important as my Mom moves forward.  But we don’t have a strategic plan, we don’t know what her role might be, we ‘manage’ performance from one moment to the next, we wonder what budget might be needed etc, etc, etc.  It is the process, the interactions in these areas of importance, not the outcomes of them that are important.

And if our focus on development in VUCA environments does not recognize this I’m pretty sure it’s just another fad.  Unfortunately, the OD world doesn’t really have much say in this.  Our current socially constructed societies are still a long way from accepting a focus on process rather than outcomes in that list above.

Perhaps the best we can do is develop the capacity for the even numbers above but still recognize the odd numbers have to be done.  And help to develop the capacity to recognize that the odd numbers are for show, but the even numbers are what we will do together.

As for the responses of those people in that stroke room.  I would now say they were all ‘right’.  My Mom continues the slow, uncertain and uncomplaining road to recovery (whatever that might look like), the person in pain no longer suffers, one went home in the care of her daughter, and one silently left to live her life as it now would be.  All my judgments seem rather uninformed now.  Or perhaps informed in a way that does not match the realities of VUCA environments any better than the organizational processes we expect can deal with them.

And in order to keep the development being done with VUCA in the step forward category we really need to focus on the meaning of those words and not make the acronym mean something that drives traditional development.

Some examples of current perspectives:

  1. If you want to get a quick overview of VUCA you can go to Wikipedia. In many ways much that is being touted as new in VUCA development is not really new at all.  In Wikipedia scroll down a bit and you will see what is here, just below.  In brackets I have added what I think are pre existing areas of focus, some that have been around for decades.  VUCA development is asking you to do these better….

The particular meaning and relevance of VUCA often relates to how people view the conditions under which they make decisions, plan forward, manage risks, foster change and solve problems. In general, the premises of VUCA tend to shape an organization’s capacity to:

  1. Anticipate the Issues that Shape Conditions (Strategic Planning)
  2. Understand the Consequences of Issues and Actions (Risk Analysis)
  3. Appreciate the Interdependence of Variables (Systems Thinking / Complexity Science)
  4. Prepare for Alternative Realities and Challenges (Scenario Planning)
  5. Interpret and Address Relevant Opportunities (SWOT Analysis)

And then if you scroll down a little further you will see under ‘themes’:

The capacity of individuals and organizations to deal with VUCA can be measured with a number of engagement themes:

  1. Knowledge Management and Sense-Making
  2. Planning and Readiness Considerations
  3. Process Management and Resource Systems
  4. Functional Responsiveness and Impact Models
  5. Recovery Systems and Forward Practices

At some level, the capacity for VUCA management and leadership hinges on enterprise value systems, assumptions and natural goals. A “prepared and resolved” enterprise[2] is engaged with a strategic agenda that is aware of and empowered by VUCA forces.

Even if you toss the OD speak aside the above in no way deals with the irrelevance of how we think the dominant processes manage and control organizations.  Without this fundamental change I think VUCA is in trouble.

  1. I came across this discussion in one of the LinkedIn groups I follow:

Who writes these job descriptions? Taken verbatim from a list of qualifications: “Desire to with others and take on ambiguous tasks.”

Please read details and others comments before responding.

Aside from the obvious missing verb, how can anybody think that a desire to “take on ambiguous tasks” is even remotely a good way to advertise this position? If it’s ambiguous, how can it even be that important? It tells me you have no interest in analyzing what’s actually needed (if it’s needed at all). This is just one example. Can we discuss job descriptions, and what is *reasonable* please?

The link is here if you want to join and have a look.

What I find interesting here is that as of today this discussion has over 70 comments, many of which talk about how bad it is to have a job description such as this.  Yet this job description is likely exactly the description of a role in a VUCA environment.  As noted above role descriptions as we now typically use them become irrelevant in VUCA environments.  The process of talking about role is crucial but this discussion goes on and on about making role descriptions better.  In a VUCA environment you will not be successful at this and this discussion is an example of what happens when you try to make these types of things ‘better’.

Personally I hope the focus on VUCA adds another straw to the pile that may eventually break the back of traditional and dominant thinking about organizations.  In reality though, I think we need quite a few more straws and until then VUCA is likely to become another fad.

5 Comments on “VUCA – Process trumps Outputs”

  1. VUCA may become a fad, and is already a buzzword. That said, it’s usefulness is in providing another set of lenses for understanding the environment, and therefore allows us to explore new ways of responding to it. I have used the VUCA framework with leaders and teams–asking them to explore their core processes and systems–and of course their interactions through these lenses and it has proved helpful. You may be interested in the VUCA Prime model, developed by Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future. He flips the VUCA model and focuses on the characteristics and skills business leaders must develop to counter the effects of a VUCA environment. Johansen proposes that the best VUCA leaders have vision, understanding, clarity, and agility. Read more at: and

  2. Apologies Tom for not responding to this sooner. I’d somehow lost the RSS feed from your blog and have only just reconnected.

    Great post and spot on with your comments. I especially valued the use of your experience in the hospital to illustrate the everyday nature of the “volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous” world in which we live – and have always lived.

    If I had a pound (or a dollar) for every time over the past 45 or so years that I’ve read about the world becoming INCREASINGLY volatile etc., I’d be a rich man. In the ’70s the word used was turbulence. Then we had Peters’ “nanosecond nineties” and “thriving on chaos”. Now we have VUCA. The challenges are different and, luckily for mainstream consultants, so are the prescriptions. But, as you say, it’s about process, not outputs. And the underlying process – the complex social process of everyday human interaction out of which whatever emerges, emerges – is the same.

    On a personal point, I hope that your mother has recovered from her stroke.

    Best wishes, Chris

    1. Hi Chris… a while ago we moved our blog from WordPress to our WordPress template web site so that may be why we ‘got lost’.

      I appreciate your comment and thanks for taking the time to post. As I’ve gone through many of the ‘techniques’ or ‘models’ of how to deal with VUCA I am eerily reminded of techniques and models of times past with relatively few changes really, except perhaps the presentation mode!

      Unfortunately process is not popular and outputs are and for me, the whole world is process. Nevertheless when you just get away from all the theory and just focus on interactions it seems to make sense for people.

      I hope you keep pushing your messages until people begin to pull!

      My Mom actually is back in her own place and doing ok.

      1. Glad to hear about your Mom.

        I agree wholeheartedly with your process v output comment. I like the (probably apocryphal) story about Michelangelo and his statue of David. When asked how he’d managed to sculpt the statue from the large block of marble, he is reputed to have said, “It’s easy. You just chip away the bits that don’t look like David.”

        My approach, in attempting to shift the narrative on the nature of organization and leadership practice towards a complex social (or responsive) process view, has therefore been to keep chipping away!

        Cheers, Chris

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