Leading Change in a VUCA World

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the nature of what it takes to create and respond to meaningful change these days. Yesterday, I brainstormed the following after reading an article by John Kotter, one of the most respected culture change experts. How would you modify what I’ve written? What would you add?

In a VUCA world (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous)*, leaders must be able to adapt to — and stimulate — continuous organizational change. Older procedures, labeled “change management,” often represent outmoded, top-down strategies for gaining “buy-in” and overcoming “resistance” to discrete initiatives. These older methods, which aim primarily to control change, most often do not result in shared, long-term ownership and engagement, nor heightened readiness and flexibility in the face of continuous, emergent change – which is what the VUCA world is all about. Worse, older change management methods can embed cynicism and workplace fears, making an organization even less resilient.

Change leadership, by comparison, is associated not only with transforming the work, but also transforming the culture. The ultimate goal of change leadership is the creation of a truly generative, rather than merely reactive organization. There are six core performance dimensions.

Six Performance Dimensions

1. Understanding the nature of adaptive challenges.
Adaptive challenges are urgent ones that have no precedent and cannot be addressed via any single individual’s current expertise or experience. Solutions depend on combining and enlarging skills while marshaling energy to convert change anxiety into positive growth.

2. Creating a shared vision, social meaning and context for change.
This includes collaboratively defining required changes, examining human impacts, and exploring the underlying purposes of change. In turn, this work drives the shifts in relationships needed to achieve a common vision.

3. Courageously embracing feedback about leaders and systems.
The status quo is defined by the strengths of the organization but also by the problems that people inside and outside the organization are living with. Fostering change means helping an organization address what is already problematic and chaotic from the inside out, not just adding programmatic “solutions” meant to increase effectiveness or efficiency.

4. Learning from collaborative experiments, and applying that learning. Change happens when people design and try out their inventions, form their own change process, and learn how to keep making adjustments in a continuing spiral of knowledge, action and shared discovery.

5. Integrating personal development.
Evolution happens both externally and internally. There must be an intimate connection between the leader’s own growth, others’ growth, and the organization’s ongoing transformation. Truly generative organizations incorporate supportive communities and learning relationships that join higher level, integrative thinking with the long-term development of people.

6. Raising the level of conjoint awareness.
Individuals, teams, and the organization as a whole must rise through meta-conversations and dialogue to examine their deeper patterns, inter-connections, and the dynamics of their own and others’ experiences. This awareness serves as the ultimate foundation and shared readiness for change.

What say you?

* I first found the term, VUCA, which apparently comes from the Army, in this Center for Creative Leadership white paper by Nick Petrie.

RSS and email subscription, monthly Unfolding Leadership newsletter, search and other functions may be found at the “Further Information” tab at the bottom of this page.








  • This is probably one of the best quick thumbnail abstractions I’ve seen on the subject so far Dan.

    Definitely worth further exploration on both an individual and collective level.

    I’ve been experiencing some of these acutely over the past week and so recognize the ‘spiral’ inside of myself, while I’m also a part of the larger collective; along with each person’s separate dynamics. We’re each juggling and navigating through our various seasons, cycles, and stages and there’s definitely a clash of internal/external values and beliefs to be expected.

    The internal struggle within and the natural struggle to integrate with our external world. #1 has been tapped in to for the past few months on our end with dental for me and some health issues for my youngest daughter. Quite unexpected that has through us for a bit of a loop on multiple levels, including financially.

    And in recognizing the need that I haven’t manifested what I’ve envisioned over the course of the past year has really cause me to want to re-evaluate everything.

    In addition learning to navigate interpersonal relations in this internet world and all the joys and challenges that come with that given it’s limitations, etc.

    It is so important to keep in mind that there is FAR more going on for any one person that meets the eye…or even the tweet or a blog post. It really is imperative that we keep in mind that we are all cycling through these various dynamics and stages.

    One size all definitely doesn’t work and isn’t going to help us integrate and be able to carry on through some of the needed transformations that must happen both on the individual, organization, and societal level.

    Thanks for taking the time to put this together. Looking forward to additional ideas and insights from others.

  • Jon Husband wrote:

    I think your perspective is spot-on, Dan.

    I’m old enough to remember when “change” was something new and foreign to people in organizations, and I’ve been around long enough to watch the concepts and practices associated with “change management” become circumscribed and commercialized (from say mid-80’s through to the mid-00’s).

    And the last 10 years or so have brought us to VUCA. Change in conditions of real and growing complexity can’t be managed. And paradoxically (as always?) what can help is leading (oneself and others) to stay focused on purpose and core principles which if clear remain unchanged and burn brightly through the swirling fog banks and unknowns of VUCA’s conditions.

  • Dear Samantha~

    Your words exemplify the inter-connections. We can’t tear apart what’s happening internally from externally or vice versa. We are simply “in it,” and trying to act on and influence something we are in is not getting much traction for many of us. A visit to the dentist becomes an experience of interacting (at times overwhelming) social systems not just a discrete event! Your notion of “integrating with the external world” is on the one hand a descriptive abstraction and on the other a statement of how it feels personally. We can’t re-personalize the world without a different kind of thinking and a different kind of intervention.

    Thank you so much, Samantha!


  • Dear Jon~

    Thank you so much for stopping by, and for your perspective about how “change management” became “circumscribed and commercialized” — I would say mostly as a result of big accounting/management consulting firms reducing it to an exercise in reengineering.

    I also agree that staying focused is essential. My only caveat is that staying true to principles depends on what those principles are (a “principle” could also be short-term profits), but I know what you mean — it’s the intrinsically beautiful principles like inviting your customers in, collaborative design, and deep listening to the voice of an organization that can most help us ride the waves.

    Much appreciation to you, Jon!

    All the best

  • While this was written several years ago, it is equally relevant today. The current Corona virus crisis is really the testing ground for a lot of VUCA ideas and concepts on a large scale. Everything is about to change.

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.