Fortune Magazine recently published its annual list of the largest U.S. corporations. Among the top 500, the names are all familiar. Only about 5% of the overall companies are newcomers or returnees. But understanding the challenges some of these companies have faced over the past years tell a clearer story of the shifting headwinds. One popular acronym today is VUCA which stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. According to writers Nathan Bennett and G. James Lemoine in the January-February 2014 issue of the Harvard Business Review, your level of VUCA reflects how much you know about your situation, and how well you can predict the results of your actions.
Other articles and books are being published that similarly reflect the increasing pace and scale of change in our environment, along with the need for leaders to become comfortable with uncomfortability. C-suite leaders who finally win the brass ring can no longer rest on their laurels, nor can they clearly forecast the next major trend. Instead, as the saying goes, they are now an easier target for competitors and detractors to aim at. More frequently these days, their appointment comes on the heels of their predecessor’s perceived shortcomings, and/or the mandate to reinvent their companies and themselves.
Even the best leaders are scrambling to keep pace, much less outrun their competition. In early 2014, on Doug McMillon’s first official day in his new position as Walmart’s CEO, he found it difficult to actually sit in the chair in what used to be Sam Walton’s office. Whether he was momentarily overwhelmed by the magnitude of running the Fortune 1 company, or by the admired history of its founder, it took a moment for him to physically make the shift. For a company under competitive pressure from the likes of Amazon and dollar store chains, his leadership is critical to pushing through the challenges ahead.
As McMillon and other leaders press forward to maximize the success of their companies, several tips come to mind that are critical for all to follow to effectively manage their VUCA.
Dance on the balls of your feet. In my career I’ve observed many executives who I’ve placed in the category of needing to “learn how to dance.” In other words, they needed to learn how to flow with suddenly changing business situations, and to lead by coming up with new solutions quickly. Dancing on the balls of your feet takes this to the next level. In the dance world, as in the business world, doing so aids your quickness, balance, movement and smoothness; all necessary traits for managing VUCA. Your leadership style, organizational culture, and decisions must be agile to smoothly and swiftly pivot the company’s strategies and direction when competitive threats loom, and to take advantage of new opportunities when they arise.
Wear your trifocals. Unfortunately, I’ve reached the age in life where trifocals are a necessity. At the bottom, I have the strongest prescription so that I can read and see things close up. I use the middle area to focus on objects and words at mid-range, like my computer screen. And at the top, I can see far into the distance. Though I don’t wear them 100% of the time, I admit that my vision isn’t as precise as when I have them on. Fighting the need to wear them only places me in denial. So what is your strategy for seeing things in your business up close, mid-term, and far into the future? Indra Nooyi, chairman and CEO of Pepsico saw that that while her company makes a lot of money on what many consider to be junk food, consumers really want more healthy fare. So she’s leading the long term strategy to develop new products that taste good, but without the unhealthy ingredients, while continuing to optimize the current big money makers.
Use your shoe as a cell phone holder. You rightfully should think that this sounds crazy. But 25 years ago, most people had not heard of a smartphone, apple watch, Facebook or many other staples of our modern age. This is innovation, which means combining multiple objects that have no obvious relationships with one another, to create something new and different. Innovation is a matter of changing your mental perspective, shifting your view of how things should operate, and meeting needs that people didn’t realize they had.
Play a MMORPG. For the uninitiated like myself, this is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, where a very large number of players interact with one another within a web-browser based game world. With tens of millions of players and expected revenues of $11 billion in 2015, this category is continuing to explode. The theme is to create and develop a character in an online fantasy world where the culture, systems and environment continue to evolve even when you’re not playing it. While this may seem totally unrelated to organizational strategies, the founders at Improbable, a London start-up, have taken this to a new level. According to the article in Forbes, on Merchants of Parallel Worlds, the company has created new technology to “simulate extremely complex systems.” While Bossa Studios, another gaming company, is using Improbable’s technology to create a new MMORPG, organizations like Samsung and Oxford University are using it to run simulations and future scenarios. They’re trying to understand the impact of volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous events on the future, without having to actually wait for it to happen. Game theory can help you model and manage your future.
Obviously, organizations and leaders who learn how to manage effectively in a world of increasing unpredictability are the ones with the best shot at reaching their goals. They will be more prescient than lucky, anticipating change even when they’re unable to understand it. They will thrive where others merely survive, fueling themselves on the pace of change rather than drowning in it. They will shift their perspective on VUCA, viewing it as an opportunity rather than an obstruction.
Photo courtesy of See-ming Lee [FLICKR]