All Aboard The VUCA Train: Using The 8A’s Framework To Ride These Rails Of Tension

“In these troubled times, many leaders are judging too simplistically. Others are deciding too late and paying a price for their slowness or lack of courage. Such leadership responses are understandable, but they are also dysfunctional and dangerous.”  -Bob Johansen Leaders Make The Future: Ten New Leadership Skills For An Uncertain World

Knowing this does not necessarily make leadership any easier in today’s VUCA World. Or as Bob Johansen adds, “If you are not confused by current events, you are not paying attention.”

And the more we do pay attention, the more we find that we are crawling out of a hole that was previously enveloped by a severe focus on efficiency and predictability, a world where we saw constancy and linearity as positive processes to overcome the technical problems of our day.

Unfortunately, the farther we continue to crawl from this hole, the more we find our leadership and organizations have been thrust into a very different world, one that has been overtaken by exponential shifts and unsolvable adaptive challenges for which our linear and predictable processes of efficiency are no longer useful or effective. A world marred by new levels of chaos and complexity where the solutions to these challenges lay far beyond the veneer options of “Googling it” or dropping down a “what to do” binder from high above.

Or as Jeremy Gutsche shares in his book Better and Faster, “It’s the opposite of painting by the numbers. There are no numbers. And sometimes there’s no paint.”

Inability to recognize these shifts, often leaves our leaders and organizations riding the hamster wheel, spending inordinate amounts of time providing the right answers to the wrong questions. We live in a world where we have to get much better at understanding the complexity and the depth of the challenges that we are currently facing, especially if we are to get our people and organizations to a place of creating greater solutions.

While we cannot predict this future that is whirling at us in a much more accelerated manner, we can begin to do the work that allows us to forward-cast both an individual and organizational “point of view” for the future. One that pushes us past the current chaos, beyond the voluminous noise, chatter and turbulence created by this increased pace of change, so that we may better focus our filter to the array of options and opportunities that lay hidden in this vast unknown we now face.

Inability to push past the complexity of the present, inhibits our proactive proficiency towards designing our way forward into the future, which often leaving us mired in a foggy, murkiness, held back by mental models that keep us entrenched in our past and present. In other words, inability to future-cast and engage ‘around the corner’ thinking is often a hardline to irrelevance in today’s VUCA World. To overcome this hardline, we will not only need to engage new learning, abilities and skill-sets, we must also look at the processes and drivers that allow us to engage a much more future-focused mindset.

Such as incorporating the 8A’s Framework as a process to initiate future-casting and push our leadership and organizational thinking forward…


AWARENESS:  We begin with “awareness” and gaining a greater perception of how the world has and is changing.  Realizing the pace and turbulence of change is accelerating is paramount to seeing how the current digital transformation is disrupting our world in exponential ways, both in our personal and professional lives. Awareness of these shifts and how they are changing the world now, will allow us to better future-cast towards the changes to come.

AND:  It is no longer an either/or world, rather it has quickly become an “and” world. The quicker we learn to ride this tension of “and” as leaders and organizations, the faster we will move from a focus on efficiency to one of effectiveness.

AMBIGUITY:  We live in a world that is no longer certain.  Yet, many of today’s leaders remain focused on creating a sense and semblance of safety and permanence throughout their organization. However, if today’s VUCA World has taught us anything, it has taught us there is no permanence in a world focused on “accelerated obsolescence.” So, we push forward with more linear and predictable ways of approaching our work, which does more to create greater uncertainty and incoherence than clarity, especially as our people and organizations lay witness to a world speeding up and quickly moving past them. Today’s leaders need to focus more on capacity-creating if we are to better equip our people and organizations to grapple and grow a greater tolerance for the increased “ambiguity” that is invading this VUCA World.

ADAPTABILITY:  Creating “adaptability” will be founded in our ability to create environments of learnability in our organizations. As times change, so do the abilities and skill-sets that once defined us as individuals and organizations. This ability to learn, unlearn and be reflective of how our mental models push in on these processes will be vital to how effectively we can adapt to the exponential shifts inherent in a VUCA World. Creating this environment of constant learning and “adaptability” will be a defining ability and skill-set of today’s modern leaders.

AGILITY:  Many of today’s organizations operate like the Titanic, unable to see the obstacles that they are facing and too late to turn once they are finally recognized. Modern organizations are not only going to need to be much better at adapting to a shifting world, they will need to operate in a much more agile manner. Moving to the opportunities that rise out of the complexity and chaos of a VUCA World will be paramount to ongoing relevance.

AMPATHY:  Organizations and their leaders must not only be much more aware, but much more vigilant in their efforts to amplify empathy across and at all levels of the organization. The VUCA World requires a village and an “all hands on deck” approach to this work. Gaining greater levels of empathy, especially at the leadership level, creates the relationships and trust necessary to allow our organizations to move much more fluidly through these 8A’s and the VUCA we are facing in today’s world.

ACCELERATE:  As the pace of change accelerates, especially in the midst of this volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of this world, so must the pace of our organizations and leadership. This is not to say we can parallel pace this acceleration and exponential shifts that are gripping our societal ecosystem, however, we have to begin to be much more strategic in how we move our organizations forward into the future. We are going to have to become much more fitter and cognitively stronger to survive this amplified pace that the VUCA World is serving up to our systems.

AWE:  Our leaders and organizations not only have to find the opportunity amidst the current chaos and complexity of this world, they must also engage a vision that moves their people and organization forward. A vision that inspires awe and how being a part of this work and vision ultimately allows us to be part of something bigger and greater than ourselves. Finding these opportunities and spaces where “awe” can be created will not be easy, but necessary in moving our organizations and people forward in a much more relevant manner and way.

And while these 8A’s will not provide us the ability to predict the future, they do provide a framework for our leaders and organizations to forward-cast a future “point of view” that makes our approach to designing the future both accessible and actionable. It is a much more proactive approach to how we will determine to ride this VUCA Train that we’ve all received a ticket to ride.

In most organizations and systems, we have been determined to converge to simple solutions much too quickly. We have to learn to inhale the complexity and chaos that this new world is creating, which will allow us to better engage and wrestle with the big questions and challenges that currently are and will be facing our organizations. In the midst of this upheaval, our first response is to look to create order. Instead, choose to make your first step towards finding the opportunities that lie hidden in this vast new unknown. It is only in this proactive approach, that we will ultimately design a better future for our people and our organizations.

“Organizations are often blind to emerging complexity, characterized by unexpected opportunities and disruptive change.”  -via Theory U: Leading From The Future As It Emerges


What Is Our Future POV?

The problem with how we think about the future is very often how we think about the future…

How strategically are we framing our idea of the future?

Are we considering how effectively we are designing our systems for an unknown and rapidly changing future?

Are we reflecting on the variety of ways our current mental models are diminished by past thinking and past practices and limit how effectively we move future?

Are we able to wrestle positively with the tension created by the accelerating pace, speed and turbulence of change?

How engaging and shared is the vision and big opportunities we’ve determined create greater urgency to move our individuals and organization towards an action and next steps?

Remember, it is not just in thinking about what shifts and changes will come in the future…

It is also in considering what stays the same?

In many ways we have to move from thinking about the future, to thinking for the future. We must learn how to become much more proactive in how we frame, forecast, chart and design our way forward into this unknown and uncertain future.

As Steve Case shares in his book The Third Wave, “It starts with developing a point of view – a hypothesis that the world is changing. Just the simple act of a CEO embracing and articulating such a world view is critical. It’s a way of delegating a mix of paranoia and curiosity, making people a little nervous and getting them out of their comfort zones. It’s also a way of expressing optimism, rather than dread, about the future – which naturally gets employees to pay more regular focused attention to what is happening around the edges of your industry, with an eye toward what may happen next.”

Too often, we lack any type of point of view for the future. We might have a vision. We might even have determined the big opportunity in front of us. But we haven’t truly created an idea or “point of view” on how we plan on approaching the future.

We see it as far off star that is not necessary for us to worry about in the present. We fail to see the necessity and urgency to begin designing our systems, organizations and individuals on how to proactively meet and move into the future in a much more relevant and effective manner.

Which may be just what we need…

To begin to determine what our individual and organizational “point of view” for the future is before it’s too late. Before it upon us. Especially as the pace and speed of change in today’s world continues to rev up and accelerate at an often unfathomable rate.

Or as Steve Case puts forth in The Third Wave, “Incumbents often fail because they underestimate the speed at which the future is approaching.” Or as he adds, “Objects in the mirror are closer – far closer – than they appear.”