b. The VUCA Environment

The VUCA Environment

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

a. Organisational Pathologies

Organisational Pathologies

The fundamental entity in social systems theory is the organisation. That is, any group of people who work together for a common purpose. An organisation may be an individual, a club or society, a business, a charity, a sector, a nation, or the global community. An organisation can also exist temporarily to carry out a short-term project or it can have a longer-term function. This series of articles discusses the ways in which organisations can fail and ways of avoiding this.

The articles also approach the topic from a systems perspective. Every organisation is also a system. It comprises inputs, processes, and outputs. Everything that is not part of the system is its environment. However, for organisations this terminology translates into that of social science. Processes are the needs of the organisation. Inputs are the satisfiers and contra-satisfiers of those needs. Outputs produced by its processes are the purpose of the organisation. That is, the provision of satisfiers and contra-satisfiers for others.

Figure 1. Systems and organisations compared.

Organisations do, however, have two additional features not held by systems in general.

Firstly, outputs are traded for inputs. That is, satisfiers or contra-satisfiers for others are traded for those required by the organisation. This is what binds us together into society. The word “trade” is used in a very general sense and applies not only to businesses but all organisations. Trade is a fundamental aspect of human nature. Its basis is the search to satisfy human and organisational needs. The term is derived from economics, a branch of social science that focusses on the trade of goods, services, and money. However, many regard economics as a specialised branch of psychology. It does, therefore, provide terminology that can be usefully employed in a more general sense. For example, we trade satisfiers for other “non-economic” needs such as relationships and personal growth. We do so in a way that is no less rational than the trading of goods, services, and money.

Secondly, an essential component of an organisation is its control component, i.e., leadership or management, without which the activities of other components cannot be co-ordinated, and without which an organisation does not exist.

Many factors are necessary but only together are they sufficient for an organisation to function satisfactorily. The organisation must receive its necessary inputs, i.e., the necessary satisfiers for its needs must be present, and any contra-satisfiers absent. The control component must carry out its function satisfactorily. There must also be satisfactory communication between it and the other components. The organisation must operate and maintain its processes satisfactorily. It must deliver its outputs of satisfiers or contra-satisfiers for others. Finally, it must adapt to any changes in its environment which impact on these factors.

This means that there are many more ways for an organisation to fail than succeed. In systems theory the causes of systems failures are known as system pathologies. In social systems theory they are, therefore, referred to as social systems pathologies or organisational pathologies. These pathologies can be categorised according to the aspect of the system in which they occur. They are summarised below.  

The System’s Environment

  • The VUCA World (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous)

The Control System

  • Self-interest vs. Collective Interest
  • Leadership Competence
  • The Corrupting Effect of Power
  • Contra-Social Leadership Behaviour
  • Psychopathic Leaders
  • Narcissistic Leaders
  • Dark Empathic Leaders
  • Governance, Culture & Ethical Standards

Instability and Self-maintenance

Adaptation to Environmental Change

Vertical Communication

  • Knowledge of Processes
  • Feedback and Monitoring
  • Misinformation
  • Delayed or Absent Response

Inputs & Outputs

  • Mismanagement of Resources
  • Function & the Identification of Needs
  • Equitable Trade
  • Relationships
  • Protectionism and Blocking


  • Poor Process Design
  • Process Inflexibility
  • Unregulated Feedback

Multiple Causes

  • Extractive Institutions

The articles that follow will discuss each of these pathologies in turn. They can occur in any organisation irrespective of its size and function. However, the name used to describe the same pathology varies between types of organisation. The articles will, therefore, describe the effect of each pathology on a range of organisations of different types, from a small club to a nation.