VUCA. Originally a term coined in the military, VUCA has come to be well known in the business world, describing today’s context of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.
To put a little simplicity into VUCA, let’s say that in its essence, it is really about the complexity of today’s world. A complexity that generates rapid flux, uncertainty of reactions and outcomes, and situations of high ambiguity, which are difficult to assess from the distance and from a single point of view.
In my coaching, helping leaders deal with complexity is one of the main themes. My work is to help my clients create simplicity out of complexity. Due to the complexity and fast pace of the macro-environment, I see more and more people struggling with complexity on a personal level, such as when facing 5 different challenges all at one time. And even more so on the leadership level, where teams and organizations struggle to create effective strategies in their contexts of multiple forces in a constantly shifting field . … Bye bye, time management and check lists; by bye good old force field analysis. Bye bye to strategic roadmaps that should please stay the same for the next 3 years.
Hello to finding simplicity on the other side of complexity.
Simplicity in personal challenges: step back, to see the whole and find your leverage point
On the personal level, finding simplicity is often about stepping back, to see both the whole and discern its particles, and then above all to make distinctions, and set priorities. I have seen how much coaching helps in these situations, simply through giving a space to step back, and by creating clarity through deep listening and reflecting back. As I listen to what my clients say, with full presence and from a perspective that is not entangled in any of the particles, I can reflect the clients’ story back to them with sharpened focus.
Like for the young manager who came to me with the multiplex challenge of 1) a new role; 2) managing a difficult team member; 3) overcoming a trust issue with his boss; 4) a broken heating system at home in winter; and 5) supporting his wife and children who were still in his home country. He felt that he was close to a burnout. When I had heard his story, I got a clear sense of his overwhelm, as well as of the almost ironic messiness of the situation: where would you start?
Having played back to him the five elements of his conundrum, acknowledging his huge challenge, I simply asked: “if solving one of these problems would give you resources and energy to deal with the other four, which one would that be?”. He looked surprised. Then I could see him take a deep breath, relax and lighten up in front of me. “Oh. Yes. You’re right. There is no way I can deal with all five at one time. That’s why I feel so overwhelmed and exhausted. This is a good question. Actually, the one thing I need most is to rebuild trust with my director. If we get aligned again, dealing with the difficult guy in my team will become much easier, and I will also have more support to build the network I need for this new position. And if things go easier at work, I’ll be a better partner to Eleonore and a better dad to my kids, and I will have more time to spend with them. … And the heating ? You know what? I’ll simply park that for the moment – I live in the house alone, and will simply imagine I’m out camping. He smiled.
We spent the rest of the session defining a strategy for him to rebuild his relationship with his boss – his first priority. He called me a month later: he had succeeded to remove some (unexpected !) misunderstandings with his director, and they now had a strong foundation of mutual trust with each other. They were aligned and his boss was showing him his support. This had already enabled them to tackle the situation with his difficult team member – a situation that previously had taken a lot of his time. Which had given him back time – time he had used to spend a long weekend with his family. What a change !
Simplicity in strategic challenges: purpose, service and collaboration
On the level of organization and strategy, I have found that the key to simplicity lies in focus on purpose: to start by defining or clarifying the organization’s or team’s unique purpose. The “what would be missing if we did not exist?”, “what is the unique value that we contribute”. And then to use this focus to organize all decision making and action. This creates simplicity and enables action by helping to organize information, and reduce the apparent muddle of competing values and priorities.
Once the purpose is clear, two further principles create simplicity in complex situations: these are 1) service and 2) collaboration. The principle of service lets us focus on who precisely do we (chose to) serve – our clients and stakeholders - and not multiple others. The principle of collaboration makes us think about who we need to collaborate with, in order to create synergies, and maximize effectiveness to achieve our purpose. Because situations of complexity by definition are situations that are multiple-component, and require the pooling of different viewpoints and skillsets. As a senior manager recently said to me when we discussed the complex challenges of his organization: “we simply don’t know what we don’t know. We have to talk to each other more, share information and be willing to value and to use the perspectives of other departments. We are facing new challenges to create completely new products and ways of working – a challenge we will only be able to tackle through close collaboration.
In order to succeed in complexity we need to create simplicity. And creating simplicity out of complexity is not to be confused with denying complexity or dumbing things down to make them seem simple – with the effect that we end up floating in complexity unprepared and without compass nor rudder. Creating simplicity out of complexity means to embrace complexity, step back to see the whole and discern patterns, and find the leverage points that allow us to create effective results and manage our resources. It means a determined focus on purpose – be it personal or organizational, as organizing principle to navigate through complexity. A clear focus on our stakeholders and clients, and awareness of their needs and concerns. And the willingness to open up to true collaboration, in order to pool knowledge, skills and resources to tackle challenges that cannot be tackled solo.
What are the complex challenges you or your organization are facing ? Are you clear on your purpose – and if not, what stands in the way ? Who are your most important stakeholders, and what are their concerns and needs? Who do you need to collaborate with in order to succeed ? And finally: how do you create the mindset, practices, processes and incentives that will make this collaboration a reality?
Let's have a conversation !