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COVID-19: A Perfect Example of a VUCA Environment

Updated: Mar 27, 2020

In the late 90's I had the pleasure of working as a graduate fellow for the Army Research Institute (ARI) @ Ft. Leavenworth, KS. At the time I was pursuing a doctorate in Cognitive Psychology with an emphasis in Judgment and Decision Making. Before I started working here, my learning about the subject matter had been from text books and laboratory studies with undergraduate students. In other words, my understanding of decision making in the "real world" was highly constrained.

While working at ARI I got to interface with soldiers who were attending the Army War College and facing difficult problems. During their war gaming activities one of the key issues they were facing was how to operate effectively in Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous (VUCA) environments. Although it is a rather ugly little work, it is powerful in terms of what it depicts...

  • Volatility: The nature and speed of change forces and change catalysts.

  • Uncertainty: The lack of predictability and the prospects for surprises.

  • Complexity: The confounding of multiple issues, without a clear cause-and-effect chain.

  • Ambiguity: The haziness of reality with the potential for misreads.

You see during the Cold War the US had a great understanding of the enemy they were fighting and vice versa. At the end of the Cold War, there was much less know about the actual enemy, soldiers were asked to work more frequently with international joint forces to get missions completed, the media was much more common place and involved during military campaigns, and the pace of change was at a higher level than ever before encountered.

Of course the utility of understanding that you are in a VUCA environment is that you can actually make strategies and perform tactics based on evaluating the current situation. A terrific example of this can be found in the January–February 2014 HBR article by Nathan Bennett and G. James Lemoine titled What VUCA Really Means for You. In the below table they lay out terrific examples of situations and approaches of how to operate accordingly.

So, why bring up VUCA now? With the COVID-19 pandemic in full swing I have spoken to many business owners who are almost paralyzed by the situation. They are having trouble making plans for what needs to be done now and in the future. And who can blame them, when all phases of VUCA are in full swing.

Here are four rather simplistic steps that you can take that can help you stay on course during this difficult time:

1) Prepare for the long haul. If you are running lean right now, figure out a way to run even leaner. Identify resources to keep you a float (e.g., low interest loans) for an extended period.

2) Keep your mind open to structural changes and partnerships that you may not have considered. Use information that you are able to gather to drive these decisions.

3) Experiment with new ways of conducting business. Everyone is impacted at this point and crisis calls for an opportunity.

4) Understand what you can and can't control. Don't waste time fretting over the unknown it will only impede your progress.

The Noble Consulting Group has rich experience helping companies think through complex problems, then solve and implement solid plans. We would love to talk to you during these trying times.

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