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.

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  • 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.

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