My name is VUCA

thunderstorm-567678_1280 Volatility. Uncertainty. Complexity. Ambiguity. Life in the 21st century.

The VUCA acronym was originally developed by the U.S. military to make sense of the post-Cold War multi-polar landscape of interdependent nations and economies. Since the financial crisis of 2008 the term has been co-opted by business leaders to delineate the unpredictability of market trends and forces. But it’s an apt description of all aspects of the world around us, as news headlines daily remind us.

In the music business there has always been volatility and uncertainty, but the advent of digital technology has taken disruption to new extremes. Traditional radio, bricks-and-mortar recording distribution, print advertising, etc. are all in various stages of decay. Disintermediation—the elimination of the middleman—has become a runaway train. (Coming soon, we hope: the ability to buy tickets for major concerts directly from the artist.)

To those who have made a comfortable living in these now declining industries, it’s a tough pill to swallow. Economic dislocation is never pretty where human lives are adversely affected (and sometimes devastated). That’s the churn of capitalism. But one of the lessons learned from this digital revolution is that with disruption comes opportunity. (As Joni Mitchell once sang, “Something’s lost, but something’s gained.”) As new technologies, products, and services emerge, there are new jobs created and new consumer benefits. For example, more musical artists can make a living by marketing and selling directly to their audiences; music lovers have more choices and easier access to music they love.

Meanwhile, this crazy world of VUCA—whether applied to business, economics, international relations, or government policy—requires a special kind of leadership. It necessitates that women and men in positions of influence recognize the limits of their beliefs and models in comprehending events and predicting the future.

As mentioned in a previous post, VUCA leadership should include some humility in approaching the most vexing technological, economic, and political concerns of the day. Admitting one doesn't have “the answer” is a good start, but too few leaders (especially political candidates) have the courage to say that. The smartest leaders understand that the major issues of the day are not “problems” to be solved once and for all, but “dilemmas” to be managed over time.

Yet this is no excuse for inaction. Leaders need to fail fast, recover sooner, and apply the lessons learned more quickly. Owning—and disclosing—failures is required.

But then you ask, how do we plan for the future? I like Eric McNulty’s answer: “The only thing you know with certainty about your strategy is that it’s wrong."


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4 Comments

    1. I hear ya. And I miss the old days of radio with the wacky DJs who could play what they wanted. But there's still college radio.

  1. I agree with the remark about owning and disclosing failures but I wonder if we're sometimes too quick to mark things down as failures. Sometimes a "failure" opens up another door or it confirms that another course of action that previously appeared risky or uncertain is the way forward.

    We've become a very digital / binary world where it's either / or, good / bad, success / failure, black / white. Sometimes we forget that there's a middle ground and there are shades of grey. And sometimes we apply black and white thinking to a multi-coloured problem.

    Equally, of course, sometimes success turns out to be not quite the result you originally thought.

    1. Fair point, Mark. If you broaden the time frame, many failures are just the first stage of a larger success. In fact "failing fast" and making an early correction often makes a larger success possible. But it's important that we acknowledge and flag even what LOOK like mistakes or failures so we can take appropriate action.

      But the larger point, which I didn't fully lay out, is that in a world of VUCA we need to stop hiding our mistakes, protecting our point of view, insisting we're always "right," pretending we have the answers, etc. because we're going to keep encountering bigger disasters if we do. We have to look no further than the Orlando tragedy to see VUCA in action and our inadequate responses to this new world of volatility, uncertainty, etc. So far our "solutions" keep creating the next problem. Leaders with facile explanations to complex phenomena are only perpetuating this.

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