22 January, 2024

Top 10 Tips for How to Thrive in a VUCA Project Environment

By Mike Clayton

ambiguity, ambiguous, complex, uncertainty, volatility, VUCA, VUCA Prime

You don’t need to look far to find the acronym, VUCA, applied to the project environment. Arguably, Project Management is basically a response to volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. We most often learn that the responses are things like:

  • Change control – fundamentally a response to volatility
  • Risk management – fundamentally a response to uncertainty
  • Work breakdown – fundamentally a response to complexity
  • Planning – fundamentally a response to ambiguity
  • Agile working – a more recent response to all four VUCA components
Top 10 Tips for How to Thrive in a VUCA Project Environment

In this article…

So, I want to take a different path, and look at additional approaches that extend beyond the familiar Project Management methods. In this article, we’ll look at:

And then, here are ten practical approaches you can use to thrive in a VUCA project environment:

  1. Compelling Causes
  2. The Gemba
  3. Strategic Networking
  4. The Powerhouse Peak
  5. Click, Bubble, and Hum
  6. Constructive Conduct
  7. Horizon Scanning and SPECTRES of the Future
  8. The Six Powerhouse Modes
  9. Curiosity
  10. The Powerhouse Loop

I have also added a footnote on the BANI Framework.

What is VUCA?

The acronym VUCA – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous – was coined in the 1990s. It first applied to modern, 21st-century conflicts, where the old-fashioned war movie simplicities of friend or foe no longer seem to apply. These are environments where the rules seem to change rapidly, along with the technology, the tactics, and the politics. That said; the phrase ‘fog of war’ has a 19th-century origin, and simply sums up a reality known since the beginnings of human conflict.

Those of us who are fortunate to work in the safe project environment of a modern office, factory, store, or warehouse don’t put our lives at hazard whenever we arrive at work. But we do still have to deal with the impacts of constant change, shifting priorities, and flexible allegiances.

Indeed, the Project Management Institute (PMI) talks about all the elements of VUCA in the 7th edition of its Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide). I cover this in my detailed article, Uncertainty Performance Domain: How to Deal with Risk in a VUCA Context.

For more on PMBOK 7, the starting places are:

And, for more on complexity, you will like our video on the Cynefin Framework: What is Cynefin? What is the Cynefin Framework?

VUCA Prime

The challenges of a VUCA project workplace demand a set of responses. If you want to go beyond just coping, and thrive, you must combine a set of overlapping strategies. An early articulation of this was made by Bob Johansen, who posited that the solution lay in ‘VUCA Prime’ a reversal of the VUCA elements to form the acronym: Vision, Understanding, Clarity, and Agility. These respond, in turn to the four components of VUCA.

Johansen wrote about VUCA Prime in ‘Get There Early: Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present’ (Berrett-Koehler, 2007).

Volatility implies rapid change and instability in the current situation. Johansen argues that we need to respond with clarity of vision. But we also need effective means to communicate what is going on, and sufficient flexibility of resources, to adapt rapidly. There is an important place for contingency planning and ensuring we have slack (oversupply) in our systems. 

Uncertainty results from poor knowledge of our situation and, particularly, of what may happen. So Johansen’s call for understanding seems a statement of the obvious. To make this happen, we need to divert resources into information gathering and analysis, we need to spread decision-making across networks of people, and we need to invest in portfolios of options rather than single initiatives.

Complexity arises from the multiplicity of interconnections between often-simple systems. To unravel this chaos, Johansen says we need clarity. It is often deep specialists, working together, who can bring this.

Finally, ambiguity arises when we cannot make sense of inter-relationships, meaning, or motivations. Whilst agility allows us to jump in the right direction at the last minute, it is listening hard, testing ideas as experiments, and moving in small increments that will best allow us to resolve ambiguities.

VUCA ComponentsVUCA Prime Responses
VolatilityVision
UncertaintyUnderstanding
ComplexityClarity
AmbiguityAgility

VUCA 2.0

Indeed, Bill George, at Harvard Business School, has put forward a similar VUCA 2.0 framework of:

  • Vision
  • Understanding
  • Courage
  • Adaptability
VUCA
Threat Components
VUCA Prime Responses
Bob Johansen
VUCA 2.0 Responses
Bill George
VolatilityVisionVision
UncertaintyUnderstandingUnderstanding
ComplexityClarityCourage
AmbiguityAgilityAdaptability

Practical Approaches

But to me, all of this sounds just a little theoretical. Instead, I would like to offer you 10 practical approaches to tackling the challenges of thriving in a VUCA workplace.

Compelling Causes

Before the term VUCA – or even the term ‘fog of war’ – was coined, British Admiral, Lord Nelson, advanced the idea of ‘Commander’s Intent’. When a situation is highly dynamic, the critical requirement is that everybody shares a keen appreciation of what matters most; the end goal. If everybody applies their best judgment to achieving this, within whatever circumstances prevail, Nelson believed that battles would be won.

In the modern workplace, we too need to cut through the complexity and uncertainty by focusing on a small number of things that really matter. These are your ‘Compelling Causes’ that give you permission to simplify your VUCA world just a little, by setting aside things that matter less. Use your compelling causes as your anchor, to remind you what you need to be doing and why. Actively review them quarterly because, in a volatile world, your priorities may change.

I describe Compelling Causes in my book, Powerhouse, as opportunities that have the greatest potential to deliver the greatest satisfaction or value for the effort you put in. We should express them as outcomes and work with no more than five at any one time.

The Gemba

The Gemba is a Japanese concept of ‘the place where it happens’. In Toyota’s lean manufacturing approach, we ‘go to the gemba’ (genchi gembutsu) to find out what is really happening, where it is happening; instead of relying on second-hand information. In military parlance, this is seeking out the ‘ground truth’. Learn How to Do a Gemba Walk in our short video.

To help cut through the ambiguities and complexities, physically go to where value is delivered, the problem has occurred, or where your stakeholder sits. Don’t accept third-party reporting or the simplification of emails and memos. Make it your job to ask questions and listen carefully, before drawing an assessment of the situation.

Strategic Networking

Many people try to respond to volatility and uncertainty by maximizing short-term gains. They will try to get one over on other people and win a temporary advantage. This is sometimes cynical, often smart, but rarely wise. A VUCA workplace is likely to be a reality for much of your career, so you need to play a more strategic and long-term game.

Temporary allegiances may shift, but long-term alliances make you stronger, they create flexibility, and they provide support. A diverse group, that shares over-arching goals, can excel at pattern recognition, problem-solving, and decision-making, in a way that you as an individual rarely can. When you connect up a wider group, you build in resilience and enhance the chances of unraveling complexity.

So, amplify your results through collaboration and partnerships. But remember, in a volatile and uncertain environment, you will need to constantly invest in maintaining the quality of these relationships. To do this, you need to understand the power structures and the capabilities among your colleagues and stakeholders. You also need to forge links and build a reputation that will encourage loyalty. Finally, you need to build and maintain alliances, which means being prepared to give at least as much as you take.

Powerhouse Peak

Under too much pressure, we can crumble, but if the pressure is not enough, we become bored and inefficient. The ‘Powerhouse Peak’ is the sweet spot between boredom and overwhelm, where you are at your best. Here, you can concentrate intently for long periods and deploy great energy to get things done. Thriving in a VUCA environment means operating at your mental and physical best.

To maintain this, you need to invest in three things: your mental attitude, your emotional resilience, and your physical fitness. A lot of the success you have in the workplace will be linked to the choices you make in your personal life. Relationships, exercise, nutrition, recreational activities, and rest are all essential disciplines for high-performance workers. And, of course, it would be foolish to neglect the value of mindfulness – in all of its forms – in coping well with the pressures of VUCA.

Powerhouse Peak is my expression of the Yerkes-Dodson Law: Robert Yerkes & John Dodson, 1908.

Click, Bubble, and Hum

… and Sigh and Squeak too. There are five thinking modes I describe in my book, Powerhouse. You need to choose the right one for each situation.

  • Sometimes you need to respond quickly and instinctively (Click)
  • Yet sometimes that will let you down and you need the rigor of careful consideration (Bubble).
  • Most of the time you are in tick-over, constantly alert for threats (Hum).
  • You may also need to ferment the deep insight of Sigh (which mindfulness practices can really help you cultivate), or
  • Call upon the empathic understanding that Squeak offers.

Flexibility in your actions and behaviors are vital in an uncertain and volatile environment. But they can only come from a flexibility in thinking styles. The kind of creative, divergent thinking that harnesses the opportunities that arise from chaos requires you to be able to swap mental modes frequently. 

Constructive Conduct

What matters under pressure – in battle, in business, or on a project – is not blind adherence to petty rules, but an iron commitment to the principles and values that make you, your organization, and what you stand for, distinct.

When Marissa Mayer took over Yahoo, she initiated a campaign to tackle PB&J]: ‘Process, Bureaucracy, and Jams’. Her initiative encouraged staff to complain about organizational blockages and bureaucratic overheads that slow decision-making and delay action.

Be helpful, be fair, and treat people well. Do what is right. Behave compassionately and constructively, and let your values guide your decision-making to a far greater extent than pragmatism. Winning in the short term should not be your objective in a VUCA world.

Horizon Scanning

Be a Meerkat. Frequently turn away from what you are focused on, put your head up, stand on tip-toes, and scan the horizon for dangers or opportunities. A systematic awareness of your surroundings and what is in the distance and approaching will prevent you from being caught unawares by the volatility and uncertainties of life.

One of the best-known tools is ideal for systematic horizon scanning, PESTLE Analysis. But I prefer my own version, looking for the SPECTRES of the future.

SPECTRES of the Future

SocialSocial pressures and changes in society are especially an issue in the public and voluntary sectors, or in consumer-focused industries.
PoliticalDon’t forget that politics is not just national, but local. In fact, in any office with two or more people, there’s politics!
EconomicExternally, economic conditions may affect your project, but this should remind you of all of the financial pressures your project is under.
CompetitiveIf you work in a competitive environment, then this should remind you of your partners, competitors, customers, suppliers and their goodwill.
TechnologicalLuckily, technology never goes wrong. If only! Changes in technology also create threats and opportunities.
RegulatoryUnderstanding the legal and regulatory environment in which you work will help you identify risks; these conditions may change over a long project, so need to be closely observed.
EnvironmentalEveryone is aware of environmental issues. But think local and immediate, too. Is your building conducive to effective project work?
SecurityThreats to security abound, from terror, through vandalism, to theft. Consider each of these in turn.

Powerhouse Modes

Volatility and ambiguity demand a well-chosen response from you. If you make an inappropriate choice, then the people around you will quickly become confused and you will add to the complexity and uncertainty.

Which of the six ‘Powerhouse Modes’ – from my book, Powerhouse – you choose to deploy will depend on your assessment of the situation.  

Six Powerhouse Modes

  1. LEADERSHIP: People are scared: they need reassurance, inspiration, and decisive action. They need leadership.
  2. EXPLORER: The situation is unclear: become an explorer and gather information.
  3. PROCESS: Compliance with procedures is necessary: enter process mode and prioritize discipline.
  4. FIX-IT: You know the problem: so roll your sleeves up and go into fix-it mode.
  5. CRISIS: There is a real sense of danger: it is okay to be directive, even authoritarian, in crisis mode.
  6. SUPPORT: People around you know what to do and how to do it: they need you out of the way and helping them to get on with it, in supporting mode.

Curiosity

In a VUCA world, you can never afford to stop learning, or, before you are aware, you will be unaware of things you need to know and understand. Frequently take a step back and reflect on what has happened. It may seem like a luxury that you have little time for, but this is the only way your slow-processing, deep-insight ‘Sigh’ system can operate. Reflection is also the golden path to wisdom.

Continuous learning and growth is the mark of a true professional. It is perhaps your most valuable asset for thriving amid the chaos of a VUCA workplace, and it has one thing at its heart: Curiosity.

Powerhouse Loop

One simple cycle keeps your work on track in uncertain times: ‘The Powerhouse Loop’. It is the source of your success in a VUCA world and combines much of what I have discussed above, into a simple model.

  1. Identify your opportunities
  2. Analyze them,
  3. Put in place a plan, and
  4. Take action

Then identify your progress/setbacks, analyze them, new plan, and more action. If you pursue this cycle rapidly, you will spot challenges early and be able to respond quickly. The Powerhouse Loop is an answer to volatility and uncertainty. It allows you to test ideas incrementally and learn from them. The Powerhouse Loop is also an answer to Complexity and Ambiguity.

Project managers will recognize this same cycle as the process of risk management and stakeholder engagement: Identify – Analyze – Plan – Act and then cycle around the loop. You may also recognize the close relationship between our Monitor and Control Cycle, John Boyd’s OODA Loop, and the Shewhart or Deming Cycle.

The Powerhouse Loop

The Powerhouse Loop never ends: it articulates the secret to success in anything: ‘intelligent persistence’ – keeping going through adversity, adjusting where necessary, and stopping when it no longer makes sense; ready to start something new. It embodies resilience and constant learning: two vital assets that will help you thrive in a VUCA Workplace.

What are Your Favorite Tips for Thriving in Your Own VUCA Project Environment?

Please do let us know in the comments, and I’ll be delighted to respond to every comment.

A Footnote on the BANI Framework

On LinkedIn, Markus Kopko asked: ‘Do you know that BANI is the new VUCA?! ;)’

Hmmm

BANI stands for:

  • Brittle
  • Anxious
  • Non-Linear
  • Incomprehensible.

Here is my answer to Markus:

I like the first half of the BANI acronym, but not the second half. In fact, it starts strong, gets weak, and ends horribly.

The idea of Brittleness is very helpful and echoes Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concern with fragility (in his book Antifragile). (I suspect FANI would not play well in some English-speaking countries!)

I also like the idea that VUCA/BANI environments lead to anxiety – although I am concerned that anxiety is not a characteristic of the environment, but a consequence.

Non-linear is a great idea – but outside of the world of Math and Physics grads and maybe a few others, there is likely to be a poor understanding of the true characteristics of non-linearity. We see this in many descriptions of the Cynefin framework.

And finally – incomprehensible? Maybe, but I hate this defeatist attitude. Our job in a VUCA environment is sense-making. And this label suggests we are doomed to fail. Incomprehensible does not mean, as one reference suggests ‘challenging to fully understand’. It means ‘impossible to understand’.

So, yes I’m aware, but I chose to ignore it.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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