Is Your VUCA External or Internal?

Whew!  The past seven months has been a pretty chaotic time in Washington and across the globe with almost more dramatic episodes of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) than we can count.  I am pretty sure that the Hollywood screenplay writers and reality TV show producers have more material than they can use for several seasons.  If the potential consequences and implications of this global VUCA vortex were not so daunting with somewhat impetuous leaders in North Korea, Russia and beyond – one might imagine a surreal, Sci-Fi-tinged spy thriller coming to theaters in early 2018.  Let’s hope it does not continue to play out with that kind of drama.

VUCA is that term coined at the US Army War College in the late 1990’s  and is precisely descriptive of the global operating context.  The reality is that there are “layers” of VUCA operating all the time. For example, the Global VUCA layer has its dynamics, consequences, influences and implications – so does your Regional and Local VUCA spheres.  This is intrinsically part of the VUCA vortex and adds to the total complexity factor that leaders and organizations must encounter and navigate.

There is another very impactful dimension to the VUCA equation – your “INTERNAL” VUCA! As we work with clients around the world, we often see significant amounts of VUCA created INSIDE the organization that compounds and exasperates the EXTERNAL VUCA factors – creating a HYPER-VUCA condition … CHAOS indeed.  Sometimes these internal VUCA factors are deep-seeded in the organization’s culture and can range from hard-riveted silos, steadfast holding onto “the way we have always done it” stubbornness, inadequate and often inaccurate information platforms or aberrant leadership behavior demeaning organizational spirit and values.

There are many sources of internal VUCA that often show up in THE VUCA REPORT™ pulse surveythat we have been tracking for two years as well our ORGANIZATIONAL AGILITY PROFILE™.  These are called out as people, process or technology obstacles that inhibit better and faster nimbleness and adaptability … aka your agility.  Some of these obstacles are chronic and have been around a long time.  Others are newly sprouted as the speed of business accelerates and can cause spontaneous chaos for those who do not anticipate change well.  We invite you to take THE VUCA REPORT™ survey yourself and share your experiences and perspectives along with the almost 1,000 others who have so far.

We are operating in a world filled with consequences and high performance expectations.  The impact of time compression where daily expectations are for faster results and decisions combined with the reality that “the way we used to do it” is becoming obsolete at warp speed – conspire to freeze and paralyze those who are FRAGILE and sets the table for those who are AGILE.  Darwin actually said its about “survival of the most adaptable”.  You will find many tools and insights throughout our website to help you move from the fragile zone to the agile zone.

There are numerous examples of organizations becoming stymied by their own Internal VUCA.  UBER is a recent example of a darling company with seemingly magic touch … then spiraled into whirlpool of internal VUCA around leadership behavior.  Certainly the high profile scandals at ENRON, WorldCom and Lehmann Brothers represented out of control internal VUCA.  Unfortunately, there has been significant amounts of Internal VUCA impacting the effectiveness and agenda at the White House and Congress.  Hopefully, the appointment of General Kelly this week will bring an experienced leader very familiar with all forms of VUCA along with the leadership acumen and discipline to minimize internal VUCA and help build better and faster capabilities to get important things accomplished.  As in any organizations, internal VUCA distracts and undermines organizational performance.

As many of you begin your 2018 business planning cycles, it is an excellent time to examine and evaluate your forces of change and the VUCA impacting your success.  What are those External VUCA factors that you must face and overcome?  What are those INTERNAL VUCA factors that may be undermining and sapping your energy, resources and focus?  Take a look at our ORGANIZATIONAL AGILITY PROFILE™ and work with your leadership team on these questions.  I will be interested in how the conversation flow progresses.  Always remember, as my partner Mike Richardson says … the right conversation flow leads to cash flow!

Love to get your feedback and perspectives on your sources of INTERNAL VUCA and what you are doing.


Most precision operators have checklists to insure that the critical activities, conditions, events and resources are in place, fully functioning and properly executed.  Would you want to fly on an airplane, submit to major surgery, live near a nuclear reactor or even drive your next rental car without the confidence that the responsible crew or team had not used a rigorous checklist to insure safe and effective operations?  Not me.  Checklists are essential whether you are NASA launching a rocket ship into outer space or a project manager looking to launch the next product improvement initiative.  The complexity and speed of play in today’s operating environment can be overwhelming.

We are in the season when many organizations are heading off to strategic retreats to hopefully stop the merry-go-around for a few days and reflect on three classic strategic questions to help them and their organizations get re-centered for 2017 and beyond …

  • Who are we and where are we today … really?
  • Where are we going?
  • How do we get everyone aligned and focused on what matters to get there?

Shaping the Future involves helping your leaders, teams and total enterprise to be focused, fast and flexible on the things that matter in your vision and strategy map for success.  Here are a few checklist questions you might use with your teams as you go to the mountain top for a few days or even just progressively pause for a few hours of meaningful, reflective discussion as a team – big or small.


  • What does that mean for you anyway – as a leader, team or total organization?  Maybe you have an aspirational vision statement that provides everyone meaning, purpose and energy – that’s great.  Maybe you don’t. As a true leader you can (must) help your team identify and understand the team’s mission, goals and roadmap for success.  The absence of this clarity results in many false starts and organizational collisions.  In the Navy SEALS, they call this clarity understanding the “commanders’ intent” – it helps guide decision-making down the line.
  • How do we translate this down the line?  Clarity must radiate beyond the senior leadership circle if any chance to become a truly focused organization … it must go top to bottom and across all functions.  Focus cannot be complicated, confusing or contradictory.  Those organizations who are concentrating on building understanding and skills in core “operating principles” are navigating better and faster than those organizations trying to be overly prescriptive and controlling.


  • Where must you have strategic speed? This question can create important and provocative conversation.  More likely than not, it will lead you to some discussion about cross-functional collaboration of one sort or another.  In some organizations, this often naturally leads to fingers getting pointed in several directions.  Just as dysfunctional are those organizations that operate in benign neglect for fierce conversation.  Strategic speed has a dependent relationship to this notion of being focused which is why we ALWAYS talk about being FOCUSED, fast and flexible – with focus first.
  • How do you get and stay FAST? This is often the tougher question – how to change the metronome standard in your organization.  The speed of play is getting faster all the time – how does that play out in your organization?  Are you using the same age old cadence and expectations for product development e.g. it normally takes us three years to launch a new product?  The key is getting all the stakeholders to up the tempo together just as talented jazz or bluegrass musicians are able to do in a jam session.  It doesn’t work if only part of the team is willing or able to step up the tempo.


  • What does flexibility mean for you?  Flexibility is a strategic capability for agile organizations, teams and leaders.  Really does start with a leadership mindset of positive adaptability and possibilities.  The simple leadership realization that “there is more than one right answer” is powerful and liberating as National Geographic photographer Dewitt Jones shared in his video on Everyday Creativity.  The paradox to be effectively navigated is how to create clarity in strategic direction and operating principles AND to be open to idea diversity and new possibilities.  Agile leaders polish, feed and grow this capability as they continuously inform their capabilities to anticipate change better and faster.
  • How do you get and stay FLEXIBLE? Agile organizations are oriented to operating principles of speed, fluidity and synchronicity among others.  Those factors that are constraints to those principles also limit flexibility.  Each is an opportunity for teams discover the “next right answer” that doesn’t sacrifice on your customer centric value equation.

Yes – the magic comes from the ampersand … when we are Focused, Fast & Flexible then we are well on our journey to making Agility a real advantage while creating the kind of organizations where talent flourishes and grows.  These are but some of the key questions that might be on your checklist.  If you would like to explore more, you might check out our book FOCUSED, FAST & FLEXIBLE.  You can acquire from Amazon or click here to get copies for your whole team at our bulk discounted rate.  It will help equip your team for some provocative discussion about some critical success factors for Shaping Your Future in 2017 and beyond.