An Antidote to VUCA
April 28, 2021
Image: Ajit Singh, Unsplash
How to create more predictability, certainty, simplicity and clarity in your life
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
Especially in large international companies, the acronym VUCA is frequently used to describe the world we live in. It stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Coined in 1987, the acronym became popular in the early 2000s as businesses realized that they needed a different type of organizational structure and leadership style to succeed in the increasingly unpredictable and rapidly changing environment resulting from globalization and digitalization. Organizations had to become more flexible and responsive. They started moving away from fixed, hierarchical structures. Leaders were challenged to lead by providing vision, inspiration and support to their people, empowering them rather than telling them what to do as in traditional command-and-control style. Matrix organizations, agility and transformational leadership are all examples of responses to VUCA.
And what about us as individuals? What is the personal impact of VUCA, and how can we thrive in a VUCA world?
Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity all challenge our sense of security. Over the past year, the Covid pandemic has confronted us dramatically with just how uncertain our world is. We can see around us a broad range of coping mechanisms, ranging from healthy to unhealthy to outright denial.
During the first lockdowns, many people took the opportunity to form new and healthy habits, for example, spending more time outside, exercising, meditating, playing games, and nurturing relationships with family and friends. Digital tools enabled us to overcome distance and separation and to stay connected, or to reconnect with people we had lost touch with. Less healthy responses included panic buying, excessive binge-watching, -eating and -drinking. Among the most dangerous responses were denying reality and verified scientific fact. Sadly, several politicians have fueled this trend actively.
The rise of authoritarian and populist leaders who offer strong-arm security and promise a return to a past “greatness” springs, at least in part, from people’s desire to make the world more predictable, certain, simple and clear. This is a natural reaction to a dramatic drop in our sense of security and stability. We want to hold onto something, or to try to deaden the pain of losing it. Neither of these is a sustainable or healthy strategy.
Even before the pandemic, the pace of change had been accelerating for decades. Expanding globalization and mobility increased competition for business and jobs between both companies and individuals, and began to blur the natural boundaries of physical space. If I can potentially live and work anywhere in the world, my sense of home, place and geographical identity changes and becomes relative. And when the population of a country or city includes more and more foreigners, the local inhabitants may feel threatened and react with xenophobia and nationalism.
Digitalization has also driven the exponential pace of change, particularly since the arrival of smartphones. If we allow it, our devices make us reachable at any time, with the result that we never switch off.
While both globalization and digitalization have brought tremendous benefits, they have also set us adrift from time and space. We have to define for ourselves where we belong, who our people are, when we rest, and how we direct our attention and energy. Social media have made it possible for us to learn of disasters in far corners of the world and to see horrific images of events as they happen, undermining our sense of well-being. We may be tempted to compare our own lives with those of the wealthy, successful and beautiful, and to make toxic comparisons. In addition, the enormous challenges we face with climate change and racial and economic injustice make many of us feel overwhelmed and hopeless. All of this contributes significantly to the fact that depression is now the leading cause of disability worldwide, affecting 264 million people, according to a pre-pandemic WHO statistic. The figure is surely higher today. It’s quite possible that, as the WHO predicts, depression will become the single biggest cause of ill health in the world by the year 2030.
We urgently need to regard this prediction not as an inevitability, but as a call to action. Each of us is challenged by our VUCA world to actively cultivate our own sense of predictability, certainty, simplicity and clarity. How can we do that?
We can create predictability by forming and following routines. When we consciously structure our days, we both gain a sense of control over our lives, and can practice self-care by planning regular breaks to rest our brains, exercise, and nourish our bodies and minds. When we deliberately step out of our “operational mode”, in which we race from task to task on autopilot and are often stressed and reactive, we are able to reflect, get a broader perspective, set our own priorities and make plans.
Connecting with our sense of purpose and our values gives us rootedness and certainty despite the turbulence around us. Actively contributing to the greater good gives us a sense of meaning and empowers us. Focusing on what we can control—our thoughts, our attitudes, our actions—counteracts the feeling that we are helplessly buffeted by forces outside ourselves. Maintaining and nurturing our relationships with others affirms our sense of identity and belonging. Spending time in nature reminds us that we are part of a much greater whole, often triggering awe, gratitude and a deep calm.
A first and critical step towards creating simplicity is to disconnect from electronic devices, a major source of stress, overstimulation, and distractedness. Focusing on our breath, practicing mindfulness, counting our blessings, savoring the simple pleasures in life that we experience through our senses all bring us into the present moment and our aliveness.
We can increase clarity in our lives by slowing down and single-tasking, focusing our attention fully on one thing at a time. Taking the time to inform ourselves fully of the facts before we judge and react grounds us in reality.
Not surprisingly, nearly all of these practices have been proven by neuroscientific research to reduce stress and strengthen resilience. None are rocket science, they are not complicated, but they only work if we implement them. The more stressed and pressured we are feeling, the more crucial it is to do this. With home office and home schooling, many of us feel that we are not in control of our lives, making it more urgent than ever for us to take active responsibility for ourselves.
The pandemic has shown us how interdependent we are and how fragile life is. We need to strengthen our individual resilience to have the energy and creativity to contribute actively to addressing the unprecedented challenges we are facing in the world today and find the path forward together.