The Way Leaders Think Influences Success in the VUCA World (ASME)
29 March 2022
Over the decades, the only certainty that remains unchanged is the existence of increasing uncertainty in our everyday lives. Be it for businesses or consumers, the changing market landscapes experienced in business, learning and leadership can be defined by VUCA — Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity. These four terms, while seemingly synonymous, have their differences and warrant specific actions from leaders. To cope with this, my personal take is for business leaders to start by first reviewing their mindsets, so that they can drive desired actions. Our current beliefs or worldviews shape our eventual actions and behaviours. To illustrate, if our staff believes that there is no psychological safety in our organisation, they are less likely to speak up, debate ideas, be innovative or admit their shortfalls; all of these we know now, are critical to navigating in a VUCA world. What are some of the key mindsets leaders should be aware of to build a conducive environment for innovation?
Letting go of past glories and seeking relevance in a world that is rapidly changing
Having a growth mindset means recognising that there are always possibilities in and through change. Despite the havoc the COVID-19 pandemic has caused, it has also opened a wealth of opportunities for innovation and pushed for greater automation. Along with the changes in the way people work, it is the call for leaders to unleash the full potential of teams. To achieve this, it is necessary to constantly do check-ins with your team to minimise doubt, and maximise creative solutioning and productivity. Front-loading of knowledge is not going to work. We need to stay relevant in such changing times by being aware of both local and global trends, and keep our eyes and ears peeled to what is happening on the ground. We should continuously learn, sense-make, apply and iterate to achieve the best outcomes.
In order to leverage and empower team members, leaders need to frame and constantly review the challenges ahead. Previous successes do not guarantee future results and our experience can be a double-edged sword. When used appropriately, it has the propensity to help us make sense of ever-changing developments and new knowledge. On the contrary, if we are so full of ourselves, we may end up not listening to others or become totally blind to new developments around us. Our experience should enable us to pick our battles wisely and stop when it no longer makes sense to continue.
The “right team” knows best in a VUCA world
It is often when there is an unknown element that fear is instilled in us, simply because what we do not know scares us and depletes our confidence. Can we remove this fear? Who knows best about what lies ahead?
The sooner we choose to believe that no one person knows best, the more likely we are to succeed. It means that people do not only look to the organisation’s Chief Executive Officer (CEO) or senior management to navigate the unknown. Everyone can play a role, and, in many situations, the people at the frontline know better simply because they are first to experience the changes in the terrain.
The leader’s role then moves away from what is traditionally expected: from a domain expert to that of a facilitator and team builder. Leaders now create the conditions for the safe exchange of perspectives and debating of ideas, hence bolstering a culture of innovation. This requires letting go of personal egos, and demonstrating humility and openness.
In a VUCA world, teams are made up of members with multi-disciplinary skills, in which they navigate together to achieve organisational outcomes. Leaders no longer “manage by control” and begin to “lead by context”. This is achieved by being clear on the “whys”, what success (outcomes and deliverables) looks like, and facilitating the team to work out the “hows”.
If team members are not competent enough, leaders will have to look for ways to fill the gaps while developing capabilities within the team. When leaders build their teams well, team members are not hesitant to engage in positive debate on ideas and decisions. They are able to hold one another accountable for the commitments made and work towards collective results, learning together as they progress.
Empowering employees to innovate and fail responsibly
It is common today for organisations to espouse a culture of innovation with the belief that people must be willing and empowered to try new ideas and approaches. Yet, in my experience working with organisations undergoing change, many still struggle with concepts of empowerment.
The perspective from staff is that the leaders, whilst they expect innovations, are still managing by control. Leaders are perceived to be risk averse and do not condone failures. As such, people are only confident about decisions that are “business as usual” and not “business unusual”. On the side, the leaders hold the view that some of their staff are unwilling to take on added responsibilities and hence, not prepared for empowerment. This happens for example, when staff get caught up with their workload or other personal priorities and let go of commitments that they have asked to lead in the first place. Whilst empowerment is important, it cannot be a case of handing out a blank cheque, since all failures do come at a cost – it must come with responsibility.
Now, it appears we are at a stalemate. If staff and leaders hold onto their respective views, empowerment will then become a conceptual exercise. Leaders can break the conundrum by articulating the types of failures that are unacceptable and actions that are encouraged. In my view, there are 3 “unacceptable” failures:
1. Failure due to lack of diligence/inaction
Lack of diligence refers to situations where people commit and start acting on something, but are not diligent in planning and follow-through. This results in poor or non-performance.
2. Failure due to ethical or legal breaches
This is quite self-explanatory and is clearly unacceptable due to the severity.
3. Failure due to self-interest
As we move towards a team-based approach, it is common that we bring our unique domain expertise to the table and play our roles well. Yet, we are after collective team results. If we are aware that things are not going well and avoid bringing attention to the issue, the entire team fails. This usually happens when team members demonstrate traits like conflict avoidance, pushing away responsibilities, etc.
On the other hand, leaders should encourage failures that are a result of genuine convictions and efforts to make things better and with impact.
We cannot expect a smooth sailing world, be it in a business or outside of it. Turbulence has always existed in our environments and it will continue to. However, how we view situations and readjust our thinking accordingly can help to reduce possible disruptions. We have to keep our team engaged and unafraid of innovation for us to thrive in this VUCA world.
Vincent Ho, Co-owner & Director, aAdvantage Consulting
Vincent has 26 years of business advisory and senior leadership team coaching experience. He focuses on organisation transformation, customer experience, culture development, senior leadership team coaching and change management. His motivations are driven by his core values of Respect, Humility and Collaboration.