WHAT DOES VUCA mean? The term VUCA was created by the United States Army War College to describe the state of the world after the Cold War. The simple clash of capitalist and communist systems was replaced by multiple threats from unpredictable rogue states and terrorist threats. The term has since been adopted by the business community to describe how security, predictability and simple cause and effect relationships have been replaced by turbulence, unpredictability and rapid change. Some of the trends driving VUCA for business include the shift in economic power from West to East, demographic change, the disruptive rise of digital technologies, as well as continuing globalisation. These forces affect every organisation in some way. In other words, VUCA has become the new normal.
Every time I mention the word VUCA in my coaching sessions or in conversations with clients I see a lot of head nodding. It is always welcomed by signs of relief and phrases like: ‘So, it is not only me! It is not just my personal perception!’
If VUCA is the ‘illness’ then the discovery phase of understanding the symptoms for the person includes coming across sensations as: feeling overwhelmed, being in a state of paralysis and anxiety, sensing heaviness and alienation. Fire-fighting and riding the waves of constant high-pressure states are the normal reaction to VUCA. ‘As long as my body and my mind can take it, I will carry on’. This is what I hear again and again.
Then THE question is asked: ‘What is the solution? What can I do?’
Unfortunately (or fortunately!) VUCA is not an illness and there is no straightforward solution. But what about looking at it from a different perspective?
Stability feels good. Operating within comfort zones is reassuring. Following rules is comfortable and easy. But does VUCA really require us to completely give up stability? I don’t think so…I believe that what it does is that it makes us find a safe enough level of stability within ourselves. In other terms, it forces us to counterbalance the fast-moving pace of change by consciously taking time to reflect over what we are and where we want to go.
In other words, VUCA invites us to really be serious about self-discovery and self-awareness because the most authentic representation of VUCA is the human being. Coming to terms with the fact that VUCA is not an external negative reality but an extension of our normal self allows to make a significant shift of perspective and see VUCA as an ally instead of an enemy to destroy.
So, my question is:
How can you transform your inner VUCA into your permanent and conscious strength that can really help you make a difference in leading yourself and, therefore, others?
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Some of us grew up at a time where only some families had a fixed phone line. We might even remember that we had to go to our neighbors’ home to make a call. I guess most of us remember visiting a travel agency to buy our travel tickets. Our parents worked for the same employer for years and years. In some countries people who worked over 30-40 years for the same employer, used to get a gift for long term loyalty. Our parents were convinced that certain jobs are great and we better aim to follow this path. Ideally continuing the same profession, they had chosen. That was consider back then, a great way to create a “solid” future.
This has been the world of the last century for (more or less) most of the people in the so called “Western World”. Nowadays there are more and more publications suggesting that the jobs that exist today might disappear in the next decades. We read that the jobs that will be in trend in 10, 20 years from now, don’t even exist right now. We just need to think of some people claiming a job title of a “Vlogger” or “YouTuber”. Who would ever imagine a “job title” like this 20 years ago.
The skills required for us to thrive in the future are mostly unknown. The future of work is quite unpredictable. The pace of change right now is exponential. They say that the change in the in the next 30 years might be equivalent of the change that happened in the last 300 years.
Who knows what could be the Leadership skills required from Organizations, if one day they end up “employing” 80% humanoid robots and only 20% humans?
The rise of the so called VUCA world has already a major impact for all of us, especially the ones that actively lead teams. First of all, many of these teams are based in different locations around the globe. This means that the biggest part of the collaboration is virtual. In addition, team members have diverse cultural and generational backgrounds. Hierarchical structures do not matter as they used to do. Not everyone in these teams is equally aware and/or comfortable with the existing set up and the upcoming changes. Leaders have a major role to play in helping their teams to become “Fit for the Future”.
According to research by McKinsey&Company social & emotional skills will remain relevant despite the rise of the digital world: “Our research finds that the strongest growth in demand will be for technological skills, the smallest category today, which will rise by 55 percent and by 2030 … This surge will affect demand for basic digital skills as well as advanced technological skills such as programming. Demand for social and emotional skills such as leadership and managing others will rise by 24 percent…”. (Skill Shift Automation and the future of the workforce, Discussion Paper, May 2018).
It seems that the more we will have “machines” substituting humans at work, the more the added value of humans will have to be differentiated from the one of the machines. Leaders of the future have a real mission to start cultivating the new set of skills required. Skills related to Agility, Creativity and Digital Savviness.
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In a world of constant change and disruption (a so-called VUCA world) leaders are required to be able to change and reinvent themselves (Change-Ability) and also to be able to understand, connect and motivate with a wide range of people with different worldviews (Personal Influence).
In that sense leaders need to be able to use different “qualities” within themselves and understand and adapt to different “qualities” of others in a global environment.
In reality all these “qualities” already exist, somewhere deep inside every human. Everyone of us is unique, still reflecting certain “qualities”, certain innate human characteristics, that can be recognized in different cultures, beyond time and place. These “qualities” are vividly represented in the form of Archetypes.
So, what are the Archetypes?
The word “archetype” has its origins in ancient Greek. The first part of the word “arche” means “original” and the second part of the word “-type” means “pattern”. The two words combined refer to an “original pattern”, i.e. a pattern to which various other entities, characters, personalities, concepts are derived.
Carl Gustav Jung, the Swiss psychologist, used the term archetype, with regard to universal, mythical characters that reside within the collective unconscious. In that sense, archetypes represent the most fundamental, timeless and unique drivers of human motivation.
The main breakthrough in making archetypes more tangible and easy to grasp happened when Prof. Carol Pearson wrote the book “Awakening the Heroes Within: Twelve Archetypes to Help Us Find Ourselves and Transform Our World”.
What are the twelve archetypes?
There have been many different versions of archetypes. There are books referring to 4 core archetypes or 6 archetypes or even 22 of them. In reality there are hundreds of archetypes that have been clustered in categories, to help people make sense of a complex world. The categorization of the 12 archetypes by C. Pearson offers a fairly wide and comprehensive range, which is still simple and memorable. See the image above the 12 different archetypes according to C. Pearson.
What is the practical application of archetypes in Leadership?
We can help you identify your dominant and silent archetypes. Identifying them will help you better understand yourself and how you experience and relate to the world. Becoming familiar with the model of archetypes will help you also to better understand others (your team, your boss, your customers). You will also be able to make more sense of how you and others have preferences around change vs. stability and independence vs. belonging. They will actually equip you with a very deep understanding of how you can increase your Change-Ability and Personal Influence.
I gained a lot of personal insight when I was able to identify that my dominant archetypes are the “innocent and the magician” archetypes. A combination of optimism and a desire for transformation, that allow me to see the bright side of constant change and also act as an enabler of transformation for individuals and organizations.
Would you be curious to know what your dominant archetypes are and what their impact is on you and others? Would you be curious to identify which of the archetypes you need to activate even more to increase your Change-Ability and Personal Influence? Would you be interested in joining one of our open seminars or even organize one for your team? We have created an exciting 1-day & 2-day workshop design, including self-reflection, videos, games, and support sessions.
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George Bernard Shaw
During recent months, I have been involved in a series of conversations around VUCA, disrupted leadership and agile organisations.
Regardless of what I read or who I speak to, the conclusion is always the same: VUCA is a fact. Digitalisation, AI, globalization, automation are facts. The ever-growing speed of change is a fact. We ARE living in one of the most transcendental times in human history.
But then I think: What is more volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous than our life? How much can we really plan? How many times do we find ourselves saying:
‘On paper this choice seemed absolutely perfect. In retrospect, the illusion of having everything under control had made me unaware of the likelyhood that everything could go wrong’.
The opposite is equally valid:
Aren’t the best moments in life the unexpected ones? The ones that really change our life drastically – be it the birth of a child, moving to another country or meeting the love of our life?
Let’s be honest: stability feels good. Operating within comfort zones is reassuring. Following rules is comfortable and easy. But it is also extremely limiting. The margin for mistakes is reduced to the minimum and so is the chance for learning. A sense of false perfection is nurtured which, in turn, reduces the level of openness towards feedback. An illusion of knowing what others should do is fostered together with constant judgement.
So what can we do to develop that level of readiness towards the unexpected – be it within or beyond ourselves? I don’t have the magic recipe – if I did I would be feeding exactly what I am trying to avoid.
But I will tell you what I am experimenting with. I am making the conscious choice of disrupting my identity.
By voicing identities that are outside of my comfort zone.
Given my need to lead change, I am exploring my revolutionary side by challenging the status quo and asking probing questions like: ‘Why are we doing this? Is this (really) going to make a big impact? Is this risky enough? Why do we (always) do it like this? How does this contribute to the legacy I want to leave? What values do I want to make sure are visible in everything
I’ll be honest: I have never felt so assertive!
My next experiment? I have no idea but this is what makes life so cool! Just raise the bar, create yourself and experience what you still don’t know.
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The other day I coached a Senior Manager who during the past year has had to get used to:
The Manager also felt disengaged from the job and complained that:
‘There is much less of me in the final product now than in the past… hence I feel that what I am now doing is much less ‘personal’.
I asked the Manager these 3 simple question:
As the candidate talked through the achievements and the new insights gained throughout the year she literally breathed deeply, straightened her back and started to move her eyes sideways. Quite different from the ‘leaning forwards and looking down’ professional I had seen up to that moment.
She started exploring her synergetic self and re-accessing her inner resources.
She shifted perspectives and started to replace ‘imposition’ with ‘milestones and success moments’.
She started realizing that she was still making an impact but in a different way from before.
She started claiming a new voice for herself.
Let’s face it: we hear a lot about the need to change in today’s VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) …but how easy is it to really maintain a positively curious attitude when everything and everyone around you is changing?
Homeostasis – or the tendency to maintain the system – is a strong and human force. All of us have self-sabotaging inner voices that hold us back. Preserving the status quo is part of these Saboteur’s job. It’s no wonder that when everything around us is changing we voice the Saboteurs even more.
But claiming that energy back through deeply growing in self-awareness and leading oneself first is the key to succeed in today’s VUCA world. Having an interest in aligning your behavior with your values is the necessary first step to take in order to consciously think, act and create value every day.
What can you do?
As the end of the year approaches, take stock of 2017 and answer the same questions I asked my Senior Manager:
…and note down all the new and unexpected perspectives you get!
During the past year I have been involved in the wonderful experience of crafting and delivering check-out coaching sessions.
These individual sessions are the last part of a learning journey that starts from the completion of The International Preferences Indicator (IPI – click here to read more about this tool) and continues with a Global Agility workshop. The workshop is specifically aimed at helping the participants manage the key “trilemma” facing those who work internationally:
The workshop is run in a very experiential way leaving the participants with a new awareness of what it means to work globally both on an emotional and on a rational level.
The check-out coaching session takes the learning a step forwards and zooms into what it all means for the individual in their specific context and every day challenges.
How do the check-out coaching sessions work?
I run them virtually and they always last 60 minutes.
Within the 1 hour I cover the full cycle of getting to know the person, co-designing objectives, exploring options and drafting an action plan.
Being very visual myself, I prefer to explain what I mean using this graph:
Quoting one of my clients:
I had a wonderful time with Marianna and appreciated her ease and ability to capture information she needed to help me work through some of my opportunities I need to work on!
What can you achieve in one hour?
My sine qua non condition is to ensure that by the end of the session my clients are always in a state of more resonant connection with their best self. Only by doing this can they make choices and take action.
What does this mean practically?
Most of my clients report that the check-out session helps them to:
Both myself and my colleagues in TCO International believe that nowadays it is not enough to end a training program with happy feedback sheets. It needs to be followed up by an individual coaching session in which the momentum is anchored to the specific context in which the individual is operating and to the challenges faced.
Moreover, offering a learning journey that blends the group dynamics of the training with the coaching approach of asking powerful questions enables to truly make an impact in the longer-term performance of the individual…and in their ability to become more and more skilful in thinking, acting and creating value in today’s VUCA world.
Have you ever in a moment of quiet reflection looked back at your life and asked yourself ‘how did I get here?’ I did this recently when I reflected on how a young boy – who had grown up in a small town in the UK with a local sales rep as a father and legal secretary as a mother – had ended up with a Chinese wife and Chinese-speaking kids, running workshops linked to the theme of global agility around the world.
It struck me how ‘global’ I and others like me have become in just one generation. It also struck me that the story behind this global development in my personal and professional life is not so much the end result of carefully followed personal career planning and ambition; nor even a deep-seated curiosity about the world from my childhood. It came about more through a readiness to ‘go with the flow’ and embrace the unknown in a fast-changing and rapidly globalising world.
I remember a moment in the early 90s when I accepted an unexpected offer to lecture in a Chinese business school. It meant designing and teaching an introduction to management that I had never done before, in a cultural context that I had no experience of. For the growing numbers of others like me, it is often not so much a case of ‘shaping your life’ but rather remaining agile in those moments when ‘life reaches out to shape you’. Looking back, I realised that I had been ready to take an opportunity to accept the unknown, to participate in the opening up of China, in ways that would have long-terms implications for my life. Looking back, our life seems to be made up of neatly converging paths which meet in the present; looking forward our future path can seem hidden in a confusing, intimidating and impenetrable jungle.
What helps us to embrace these kinds of opportunities and then thrive, rather than just survive, in everything that evolves out of them? Undoubtedly, in my case, what helped me to start off was a bungee jumping sense of adventure, a flexibility in behaviour and a growing awareness of the different cultural values of those growing up in different parts of the world. As time has gone by, these personal resources have developed. I have a growing self-confidence in my ability to manage whatever challenges life throws my way, an ability to choose when to adapt and when not to, and finally an ability to respond to whatever behaviours are displayed in front of me by international partners despite what it says is ‘normal’ in the cross-cultural literature. It always helps to remind myself that, while we constantly yearn for an oasis of calm when the testing time is over and things calm down, life will always throw something else at you.
There has never been a time when the global context we live in presents so many opportunities to shape us in new and unexpected ways. The VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) environment we inhabit means that as professionals we no longer have to take expatriate assignments in places like China to experience being taken out of our comfort zone. My colleagues in TCO International and I have realised that what we offer to our clients is no longer the ability to ‘go global’ but ‘grow globally’. When we first started 25 years ago, the primary challenge was to help people cross borders, linguistically and culturally. Now globalisation has sparked a new generation of organisations. These are either ‘born global’ or after a period of rapid expansion into new markets, and the acceleration of virtual working, are consolidating the relationships they had developed in a period of expansion. The number of expatriates may be going down but the expatriate challenge – needing to achieve high performance when engaging with global partners while managing personal change – is growing exponentially. After all, VUCA comes to us; we don’t need to seek it out.
In TCO International we believe that the key ability required by all of us to thrive rather than just survive is global agility ‘How can I think, act and create value in an interconnected VUCA environment’.
By ‘thinking’ we mean understanding without stereotyping others; being self-aware while understanding that there is no limit to how we will be seen by others across geographic and organisational boundaries. Even the most positive cultural ‘generalizations’ about others may need to be put aside in a world where the behaviours of so many local professionals are already partially adapted to the styles of their international partners. I am constantly meeting Chinese professionals who have never lived abroad but whose experience of working for Foreign Invested Enterprise (FIEs) in China gives them an ability to switch from a face-saving style with their local Chinese colleagues to a straight-talking, task-oriented approach to giving feedback with Europeans and North Americans.
By ‘acting’ we mean making decisions and initiating contact with others without ever knowing exactly how they will respond. This requires us to draw on a combination of making our own intentions clear, while exploring the needs of others, so that we negotiate ‘what we mean’ in the present moment. Too much reliance on goals and plans and we can lose the opportunities provided by the present. Too much adaptability and we can lose track of our goals. By ‘creating value’ we mean ensuring that we have the ability to build trust, relationships and ‘comfortable levels of clarity’ in every interaction without always having the opportunity for longer-term relationship-building that existed among colleagues rubbing shoulders together in the traditional workplace.
In supporting personal agility in a VUCA global context we help individuals manage the dilemma they face between focusing on ‘My Way’ (getting things done and remaining authentic to yourself) and ‘Your way’ (knowing how and when to adapt to others). Our belief is that we can build trust and credibility with new global partners through either approach. You can ‘frame’ the benefits of your preferred style of communication to your global partner but knowing how and when to ‘adapt’ to their local way of doing things is likely to help you succeed when visiting their country or supporting one of their clients.
In our global agility framework there are 4 areas of ability which act as compass points in helping us to navigate the My Way and Your Way dilemma in an interconnected VUCA environment.
These abilities relate to 4 questions which connect to the ‘inner world’ of feeling and thinking, as well as to the outer world of doing and saying. We draw on a combination of experiential activities, personal reflection, and coaching to help individuals engage with these questions, as well as find their own answers.
Self-awareness and Intentionality. In terms of the ‘My way’ of approaching global agility you need to ask yourself ‘How does VUCA impact on me? What do I need?’. In terms of the ‘inner world’ are you, for example, someone who quickly requires closure and certainty when faced with the unexpected or are you happy to ride the waves of uncertainty? But such ‘self-awareness’ is not enough, and needs to be turned into action. You need to answer the question ‘How can I take responsibility for my behaviour when faced with VUCA? What can I say and do?’. This requires a focus on expressing your own intentions, needs and non-negotiable values (we call it Intentionality). It may need to include clarification of the benefits these needs and values bring to others. Such ‘intentionality’ is even more convincing if it includes an awareness of how you may be perceived by others from different organisational or cultural backgrounds. Recognising how our own behaviour may be seen as challenging reflected in the eyes of others can be important for trust-building – a critical upfront investment in creating value in a VUCA context.
Other-awareness and Connectivity. In terms of the ‘Your way’, you need to ask yourself ‘How does VUCA impact on those who I interact with? What do they need?’. How does, for example, the spirit of adventure and resilience of your international partner compare with yours? How do they respond in a crisis? What aspects of VUCA are going on in their local context? To what degree are they primed by culturally-motivated instincts that drive them to avoid uncertainty and dislike learning by mistakes? In terms of the ‘outer world’, such ‘other-awareness’ is again not enough. You need to respond to others and answer the following question ‘How can I create value with others when we face with VUCA? What can we build together?’ In certain cultural contexts, despite one’s natural impatience to get down to the task in hand, a willingness to work on the personal relationship-building through an informal chat over a meal, at the start of a call or around the coffee machine might provoke the right climate for progress.
In TCO International our approach to Global Agility has been shaped by examining ourselves and those effective leaders and professionals that we have met and worked with, by answering the question that I asked myself at the beginning of this blog: how did I get here? The answer lies neither in the opposite poles of a planned strategy, on the one hand, nor a bungee-jumping spirit of adventure, on the other. It lies in a structured framework of choices that an individual can implement as they are challenged in the moment with the new people and unknown paths that this global context increasingly presents us with.
Are you curious about the choices you can make when you need to influence people in an unknown environment? Start by testing your Influencing Agility. It takes just a few minutes and it shows you both your default influencing style, and the related opposite that would allow you to become a much stronger influencer.
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