Having been involved with change management and many change projects throughout my career, and having worked with many other change consultants and teachers, VUCA has been that comfortable friend with which you often begin when talking about why change management (and the change management consultant) is important.
The VUCA world is of course: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. The term has actually been around since 1987 and was a useful way of thinking about making sense of society in general and ensuring our change programmes and business strategies (and military assessments) made sense. Especially before and after the Cold War.
The world was volatile because of turbulence and the speed of change. The more volatile the world, the faster things changed.
The world was uncertain because of the lack of predictability. The more uncertain the world, the harder it was to predict.
The world was complex because of the number of factors, their variety and their interconnection that needed to be taken into account. The more complex the world, the harder it was to analyse.
The world was ambiguous because of vagueness and haziness and lack of clarity. The more ambiguous the world, the harder it was to interpret.
VUCA was a helpful concept that led to the development of tools and skills to handle the change. To attempt to manage the VUCA world we taught leaders they needed:
Vision to deal with volatility: accepting change, developing a shared vision of the future and creating clarity around team objectives & values;
Understanding to deal with uncertainty: understanding interconnections, networking, applying strategic thinking and anticipating future events;
Clarity to deal with complexity: applying transparency, clear communication and focus, whilst developing trust, teams & collaboration;
Agility to deal with ambiguity: promoting flexibility, agility & adaptability; developing ideas and looking for people who were comfortable with ambiguity & change and had complex thinking skills.
If we included all of this in our changes or strategies, we could all be successful managers of the VUCA world.
But are we still living in a VUCA world and does the concept still help us? Or has the world changed so dramatically that VUCA is no longer useful? Especially after a Covid pandemic and with a war in Central Europe, to mention just two ‘uncertainties’.
Could a new framework help us in the same way VUCA did thirty years ago, not only to better describe our current world but also to help us develop different tools and competences to attempt manage our new world?
This was brought home to me in a quick discussion a few weeks ago with someone I had worked with in Russia, who described their current situation as ‘falling over the BANI precipice’.
BANI stands for brittle, anxious, non-linear and incomprehensible and was coined by the future thinker Jamais Cascio*.
His observations were that current conditions were not simply unstable, they were chaotic. Outcomes were not simply hard to foresee, they were completely unpredictable. Upheavals underway were not familiar, they were surprising and disorienting. Situations were not just ambiguous, they appeared to be incomprehensible.
As I understand it, Cascio also modeled BANI to look and feel like VUCA as a natural successor in a very different world. He described the four parts as follows*:
Things that are brittle look strong, and may even be strong, until they hit a breaking point and suddenly shatter into pieces. Brittleness arises from efforts to maximise efficiency (for example our just-in-time global supply chains), an unwillingness or inability to leave any excess capacity or slack in a system and often a single, critical point of failure. Brittleness is not necessarily a new development but our interconnectedness exacerbates any breakdown and there are new and surprising manifestations (e.g. food supply and even democracy).
Thinking about how brittle the world might be can induce anxiety. In an anxious world every choice appears potentially disastrous and there is a sense of helplessness. Anxiety can therefore drive passivity or despair. The media landscape amplifies these concerns abetted by fake news as we continually ‘doomscroll’. Hardworking, honest people discover that they were never in control of things because control was never possible to begin with.
In a non-linear world cause and effect are either disconnected or out of all proportion. Small decisions end with massive consequences, either good or bad. Whilst a huge amount of effort leads to little or no result. The Covid pandemic and climate disruption are two classic examples of non-linearity.
Non-linearity is often difficult to understand, which leads to the I for Incomprehensible. We witness events or decisions that seem illogical. We try to find answers but the answers do not make sense and ‘big data’, additional information, is no guarantee of improved understanding, but can lead to ‘information overload’. Systems and processes appear broken but somehow still work, yet others are non-functional without any apparent logic or reason. Cascio uses the programmer’s cliché as an example: software that only functions when a line which apparently does nothing is in the code, yet the program crashes or does not compile when it is removed. Why? Incomprehensible.
Of course an initial response to BANI would be very understandable: despair and pessimism! In fact the same criticism was made about VUCA in the early days. But BANI too offers a framework to make sense of the world anew and the basis to build and develop new coping approaches and competences. Incomprehensible does not mean incomprehensible forever.
And also like VUCA, each part suggests what tool, skill or competence will be needed to manage in the BANI world*.
If something is brittle, it requires capacity and resilience
Have a reserve plan even when things are seemingly working well. Grow capacity and resilience through strengthening teams, promoting collaboration, investing in training and increasing communication and transparency between all parts of the organisation.
If we feel anxious, we need empathy and mindfulness.
Raise awareness: we cannot manage if we cannot control and we cannot control if we are unaware. Leadership and organisation skills of empathy and mindfulness can help deal with anxiety, so the ‘soft skills’ at all levels become even more important in a BANI world.
If something is non-linear, it calls for context and adaptability
An externally-focused, open approach to cope with events, people and technology. As Oscar Wilde wrote: ‘To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect’ (from ‘An Ideal Husband’ 1893, so not so modern!). Rigid plans and procedures are a burden in a non-linear environment: innovation, and agility are required to rapidly adapt to unexpected changes. (And to be fair to VUCA this is not so different to the agility needed to deal with ambiguity)
If something is incomprehensible, it demands transparency and intuition
When something is incomprehensible we can’t wait to fully explore what’s happening before making a decision, so we must develop our intuition and rely on it, whilst being as clear as possible with everyone (which brings us back to Brittle).
The warm and comforting security blanket of VUCA may not be so useful anymore. BANI is here, and with it a new concept and framework, offering new opportunities to understand and to develop competences that will help us manage in a BANI world. Change management, strategies, people and leadership development remain important after all!
*See for example ‘Facing the Age of Chaos’ by Jamais Cascio, Institute for the Future, published on Medium.com (29 April 2020)