VUCA is a term first coined, in 1987, by the American economists Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus. It refers to the environment as being volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.
In a volatile environment, the nature of change can quickly alter, and the speed of change can be rapid. The classical example is, of course, stock market prices, but volatility also applies in other social arenas, for example the political arena when a scandal breaks.
In an uncertain environment, events and the outcomes of actions are unpredictable, can come as a surprise, and previous experience may not apply. Weather is an example in which unexpected droughts or deluges of rainfall occur.
Complexity refers to the way in which everything in the environment is causally inter-related. There may be no single cause resulting in a single effect, but rather multiple causes and effects that defy analysis. When situations are complex, a change in one place can have unintended consequences elsewhere. Chaos theory can also apply. For example, a small change in the behaviour of one individual can propagate through a crowd to completely alter its behaviour.
Finally, ambiguity refers to a lack of understanding or a misreading of the situation. Facts are unclear and cause and effect may be confused. This typically applies to the interpretation of historical events. Different historians can give different explanations based on different interpretations of the available information. For example, the two parties in a territorial dispute may both believe that their claim is reasonable due to different historical interpretations.
VUCA is a product not only of our inability to understand complexity and our inability to precisely model it, but also a product of genuine random events at the atomic and sub-atomic level. Examples of the latter are the radioactive decay of atoms and the appearance of virtual particles. Such events interact with the physical universe, and the change that they cause is magnified as it propagates ever more widely.
The VUCA concept can be used as an excuse for inaction and a lack of forward planning. However, the advantage of accepting it as reality is that we can better identify the risks associated with our actions and have measures ready if things do not go as we had hoped.
Unfortunately, we have an optimism bias and often underestimate the difficulties and risks involved in a project or enterprise. This is particularly the case when promoting a pet project to others. However, on the other hand, a greater awareness of the VUCA nature of reality can lead to a greater understanding of the knowns and unknowns in a situation. It also leads to the identification of potential surprises, and, where appropriate, trigger action to clarify any critical unknowns. Finally, it can lead to a better understanding of the potential threats and opportunities in a situation, and, where appropriate, lead to the planning of measures to avoid those threats or seize those opportunities.
A good understanding of an organisation’s vulnerabilities will enable it to plan resilience measures which limit damage in the face of the unexpected. A good understanding of an organisation’s objectives will better enable it to seize opportunities should they arise.
Clearly, this requires an organisation to be agile, flexible, and adaptable in the face of the unexpected. It also requires it to have a range of interventions, mitigation measures, plans B and C, etc., available should a change of direction become necessary. Finally, it requires the organisation to carefully monitor situations and the outcomes of its decisions.
This also applies to us as individuals. For example: we insure our homes, cars and holidays against the unexpected; we wear safety equipment when playing sports; we maintain cash reserves in the bank to see us through difficult times; and so on.
In the absence of such measures and in a VUCA world, organisations will inevitably run into difficulties and ultimately fail. A failure to recognise the VUCA world is one of the main reasons why government projects so often fail. In 2017, PricewaterhouseCoopers AG of Switzerland investigated the reasons for this. They produced a report entitled “Are public projects doomed to failure from the start?”. They found that the complexity of such projects was often underestimated, and an overoptimistic attitude would prevail. In practice, however, the political, organisational, and technical complexity of a project could render it unmanageable. They also found that deadlines were often set for political reasons, and political agendas could lead to an unwillingness to abandon projects that no longer fitted the business case. Furthermore, it was often the case that many different organisations would need to co-operate, but their IT systems differed, and they could resist the necessary changes to their practices. PricewaterhouseCoopers did, however, find that with proper management and diligence none of these factors were insurmountable.
Similar problems arise with government policy interventions. Like everyone else, the ability of politicians to understand complexity is limited. So, in practice the process of intervention is one of innovation, trial, and error. In other arenas there may be many actors some of whom will succeed and others of whom will fail, so trial and error is acceptable. However, government differs from the rest of society in that it is the sole actor and there is just one trial. Unfortunately, it is usually inexpedient for a politician to admit to error. So, government error is often only corrected when the opposition takes power.
On the positive side, many Western governments are now recognising the VUCA world and putting measures in place to better manage their function in its light. Recent guidance on managing complexity in the UK can be found at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/systems-thinking-for-civil-servants