What is VUCA?

No it’s not Spock.

The world is a dynamic place.

We are constantly being challenged with change. Increasingly, how to respond to those challenges is being explained by people with smart insights. One thing is for sure; you cannot choose not to change when the world around you changes.

Response to change is mandatory.

The only choice is how to respond.

Below I attempt to help with sense making and selecting approaches that will help you fulfil your professional duties.

Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity

Some time in the 1990’s the US Army’s War College concluded that post Cold War their success in understanding and responding to the world was being reduced by increasing Volatility, which leads to more Uncertainty, because of More Complexity resulting in More Ambiguity.

Collectively V.U.C.A.

Many people before and since have shared that conclusion in both conduct of warfare and the myriad other spheres than warfare.

Shrewd folk have understood the implications and responses that might help.

The responses are directly relevant to strategy, culture and leadership in all our organisations and businesses. After all both politics and commerce are forms of warfare!

The Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBoK®) 6th Edition is explicit that project managers need to be politically astute and include techniques matched to the complexity in their day-to-day behaviours.

The Global Simplicity Index calculates that the cost to organisations of unnecessary VUCA is in the billions annually.

Let’s find out what each of these mean:



Volatility means liable to easily triggered change.

People tend not to like change even when it would ultimately be good for them. In the analysis of VUCA we often see change described as having a type of change, a speed (which is generally becoming ‘rapid’), and other categorisations that help to inform selection of ‘best’ responses.

The opposite of volatility is stability.

Stable environments are where changes are hard to initiate so occur infrequently and when they do occur they are of limited impact. Stability is not universally a good thing, for example poverty is often stable. Volatility is, when responded to well, an opportunity.


Uncertainty refers to our inability to predict events and or their outcomes.

High uncertainty reduces the value of pro-active planning or at least makes planning for all eventualities prohibitive and unrealistic.

Unpredicted change creates surprises and people tend not to like surprises, particularly unpleasant ones. Volatile, complex environments where change is easily triggered by unanticipated interactions are necessarily rich in uncertainty.

The opposite is certainty.

We can say certainty is the ability to forecast 100% of the causes that will arise and when they do we can also say 100% of the outcomes that result for all of the causes (including secondary interactions).

Certainty makes practical the use of pro-active planning. Low-uncertainty introduces the need for “plan-B” or risk management while uncertainty favours reactive responding. Both pro-active and re-active are valuable approaches when used in a matching environment.


Complexity is the state or condition where interactions between the components of a system lead to unpredictable combinations with non-linear results.

A double pendulum illustrates how a minimal system can generate unpredictable results. Prediction is (plans are) a waste of effort in emergent situations. Preparation and responsiveness are vital. PMBoK now explicitly includes adaptive practices into all aspects of the project body of knowledge.

The opposite of complexity is simplicity.

Simple, like certain,  implies the ability to link cause to effect to cause with 100% accuracy and completeness. Uncertainty and complexity are related but not opposites while the opposite of both is clear linkage of cause and effect.

Emergence is the mother of breakthrough (effectiveness) while simplicity can be the mother of efficiency.



Ambiguity refers to multiple concurrent meanings or explanations of a situation.

Possibly with up to all of them being correct (or both correct and incorrect) at the same time!

The opposite is clarity

Where meaning is shared easily, completely and correctly understood.

Stability Certainty Simplicity and Clarity are Not Necessarily Good!

Stability Certainty Simplicity and Clarity (SCSC) are not necessarily good! But they are the presumed state for the use of many change tools such as breakdown structures (scope), critical path analysis (schedule) and resource allocations (cost). SCSC are great for operational environments where the outside world is also SCSC.

Nimble Navigation of The VUCA World

To be responsive and aligned in the SCSC world the first editions of the PMBoK gave us a tool-kit.  PRINCE2® gave us a framework within which to create governance over the use of the tool-kit. The agile movement showed that a gap exists and needed to be debated and the conclusions used to supplement “well-known-best-practices”.

Whether VUCA or SCSC we need:

  • a vision translating mission, values and pressures into strategy and objectives,
  • the support of functioning teams of capable individuals,
  • the sponsorship of key stakeholders with resource allocation and decision making authority,
  • the techniques to
    • design solutions,
    • define and evaluate each solution’s value and
    • influence everyone into action
  • work-streams that develop behaviours and culture as well as those that develop infrastructure and systems – (a full set of agents in the actor network)
  • sustained development of operational habits (new culture) that generate benefit flows.

In total we might say the enabling techniques help improve our organisations agility or nimble navigation in a VUCA world.

Neither SCSC nor VUCA is Not Necessarily Good or Bad

In the context of a project environment stability is the opposite of the required status. We want volatility for breakthrough.

Generally people prefer SCSC (Stability Certainty Simplicity and Clarity) but only when its beneficial. When the benefit ceases or perhaps even just decreases then VUCA has merit because we want to easily create desired change and complexity’s quality of emergence is where all valuable discovery ‘emerges’ from.

The winning formulae is to have decision making heuristics that are tuned to each. It is definitely not a one-size-fits-all world, it’s a localised adapt and nuanced adoption of tools and techniques, roles and duties and procedures or practices.

Cynefin Framework
Cynefin Framework

Dave Snowden gave us the map when he drew the Cynefin landscape and he showed where disaster lurks at the edge of inappropriate ‘Best Practice’.

Best practice is the child of SCSC (Stability Certainty Simplicity and Clarity) which is of only limited applicability. PMBoK clearly starts the main-stream journey towards appreciating adaptive management of VUCA elements with a wider tool-kit.

A Self-Study Guide: What Might Be Useful

The rise of forces in our lives that are summarised as VUCA creates a ‘must-respond’ pressure for many people with professional responsibilities to help their organisations thrive or even just survive.

Perhaps I can help suggest an agenda for a self-study journey? Including the resources of the PMBoK we all need to gather a tool-set and governance framework that supports us to:

  1. Create and cascade vision from Mission plus Market-place pressure and Values
    • I have collected and my trainings share a range of tools and techniques within a diagnostic framework. Each is appropriate for different circumstances where the degree of debate of direction and the steps to achieve goals may be greater or lesser. What is appropriate varies by culture, politics, role, personalities, source of ideas, current life-cycle step and more.
    • (Re-)Set direction to be responsive to the fluid state of strategic needs as of today.
    • Change triggers deep emotional responses that vary with how the change is expressed and the roles open to those affected
  2. Viscerally express value
    • The most important stakeholder in every project is “me”. Every ‘me’ needs a “WIIFM(What’s In It For Me)” but everyone’s WIIFM is different. My tool-kit includes techniques that help express value and sharpen your benefits focus, business acumen and business decision making when seen from each stakeholder’s point of view.
  3. Understand Complexity
    • I’m inspired by those theories explaining the interactions between networks of ‘agents (actors)’ driven by ‘attractors(motivations-wiifm)’ that gives rise to outcomes that may be cyclic so repeating or one off. Inspiration informs approach and techniques to control change initiatives across the range of styles needed in both VUCA (Voliatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambigious) and SCSC (Stabile Certain Simple and Clear) circumstances.
    • The governance regime is one of constraint (protocols and interfaces) that give freedom of choice and actions that may be predictively or adaptively managed.
    • The complexity/ simplicity factors influence construction of the ‘right’ cross organisation communications approaches. Often ‘effective’ requires enabling (ensuring) communications without participating in the conversation.
  4. Leading from the bottom, middle and top
    • Sources of leadership and followership within society (business or elsewhere) occur everywhere and must employ many types of ‘authority’ to create the motive force that gets-stuff-done and delivers peoples wiifm. In total there is a basket of tools and techniques, sensativities and view-points that support the critical relationships we all have to cultivate within our ‘stakeholder’ circle.
    • Exerting influence is by behaviours and is on the behaviours of others across, down and up and only sometimes via formal charter.
  5. Psychology and Sociology
    • The practices that lead diverse and often distributed people to be high performing teams and effective individuals. The behaviours needed can be created and encouraged or they can be stifled. For example advice dictating that meetings must have a prepared agenda is as often bad advice as it is good advice.

A 21st Century Tool-Kit

The successful 21st century organisation recognises the significant and continual pressures to adapt its strategic execution. Its people devote a significant amount of effort to sense-making and bringing into use of the best frameworks, techniques, mind-sets and skill-sets.

You can get in touch with Simon via Linkedin, you can also take a look at Caring for Capital through Change, an e-book from Simon. There’s also a number of online courses you can take a look at too.



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