Do you have to deal with a Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and/or Ambiguous environment in your day-to-day management and if so, what should you be focussing on to help you manage your people, situations and challenges, effectively?

I can’t avoid, before beginning to write this, addressing how tragically topical the contents of this blog are to the political and military force leaders of Ukraine, as they continue to face the invasion of Russian troops.

The acronym VUCA has been around since the 1970 and was first used by the US War College but became more widely known globally, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 when the US addressed the international security services, to describe the environment they were all facing.

It is my aim to use my own experiences as a 30-year Fire and Rescue Service Operational Manager and the years of work I have done supporting the development of 1000’s of managers across a wide variety of organisations and businesses as a coach and trainer, to share my thoughts on this subject.

Volatile

Are you facing times where change in a situation, circumstances and/or people are rapid, uncontrolled or unpredictable?

During these times, the focus of managers should be to establish as much control as possible and remove any unpredictability, with the aim of eliminating, or at the very least reducing the likelihood of any unwanted rapid change. You can do this by ‘painting a compelling VISION of the future for your people and teams.

There is a wide variety of reasons that we can find ourselves in a reactive (survival state) world but by establishing and sharing a clear vision, we can begin to positively affect the management of those reactions, by ensuring that we take a proactive approach to managing our people and teams. Working closely together in a highly motivated way can help us to eliminate the potential for volatile change, or at the very least, minimise the effects of it if it does occur. A clear and shared vision can help paint a picture that gives people direction and clarity of purpose in their actions and choices, that will have meaning and relevance to establishing and maintaining control.

In the fire service, the training department would do this by providing realistic scenarios that would allow firefighters and their leaders to see (and understand) how things react when involved in fire. They are shown the effects of how these can be controlled using specific branch techniques and the strategic use of positive pressure fans to help remove the highly volatile biproducts of combustion in a controlled way. This training helps managers to lead teams in operational incidents when dealing with potentially volatile circumstances, in a way that pro-actively avoids any unwanted or unexpected reaction.

We also recognise that people can react and behave in a volatile way and this same technique and leadership style works very well in this situation too. Take the time to share your clear vision of what it is you are trying to achieve and detail with clarity, the role that you want them to play in doing it.

Uncertain

These are the times where the future is unclear and so is the information you have available to you. How do you make purposeful decisions and build impactful action plans, when the situation and/or information you have, is uncertain?

At times like these, we should look to gain as much UNDERSTANDING as possible of the situation details, the challenges we face and the many factors that are causing the uncertainty.

This is a time to listen, observe, analyse and engage with your people, your customers, competitors and others in the industry. Use the knowledge, expertise and experience you have around you to simulate and experiment with possible action plans and the outcomes that you hope each option will deliver.

When managing a team or business, gaining understanding of your own and others; strengths, weaknesses, skills, knowledge and experience is a great attribute to developing high performance. Uncertainty of skills, knowledge and expertise will all lead to problems or will limit your performance outcomes.

The Johari Window model is a super tool to help you develop a culture of acute self-awareness across your whole team/organisation.

Complex

Describes the times where there are many contributing factors, when you have more than one challenge to deal with or lots of different information to consider all at the same time.

When you are faced with this scenario/reality, it’s best to focus on gaining or establishing CLARITY. Managers will need to seek clarity on things like: information, details, priorities, expectations and desired outcomes etc. Managers will need to be clear and concise in their communication to help people and teams when detailing or delegating workloads and responsibilities. Your communication will need to be understood, so too will your actions plans and any specific direction that you want your people or team(s) to take.  Information needs to be shared at a pace and in a manner that does this. The timeliness of that communication is critical if we are to make clear any priorities. Very often things can appear complex because of the number of things we have to consider, whereas if they are taken as single things and in context of priority or necessity, then that can help us ‘see the wood for the trees’ and create a clearer and much more structured approach to working through it all.

An example of the process used in training people in complex roles/skills should be:

1st Cognitive – this is when you create a picture to help see what needs to be done. This allows the learners brain to start to create patterns of movement and/or of process, that will deliver the skill or the desired end goal.

2nd Associative – this is when we take a series of complex movements and break them down into smaller and more manageable parts. We practise and master each part on its own.

3rd Autonomous – this is when we put together all of the parts and deliver the whole sequence as one movement. With purposeful practise, this can be done by experts without any conscious thought process.

Ambiguous

This occurs when there is a lack of clarity, knowledge or awareness of a situation. This can also happen through perception…people see things differently right!

In any group, some people will first see the couple under a tree, looking over the lake. Others will immediately see the large baby.

Which one did you see first?

During times like this we should ensure that we demonstrate AGILITY in our management style, our decision making and action plans. This is when, as managers we should look to promote flexibility in our thinking and encourage our people to share their skills and job knowledge across the teams and functions in your organisation.

Prepare yourself to be adaptable and encourage an ‘ideas culture’ among your people.

The exciting thing about this, for me, is that I truly believe that we need and should encourage healthy debate in our teams. Why…because it is the debate from the diversity of our people, that creates innovation. In the absence of challenge and opinions, we will keep doing the same thing and getting the same result. Developing success is built upon the foundations of necessary healthy challenge and change.

About the Author: Graham Ravenscroft

Graham Ravenscroft
Graham is Gateway HR & Training's Lead Performance Coach. He has over 30 years' coaching and mentoring experience in the worlds of sport and business and is considered 'World Class' by many. He holds a Level 5 IAAF Elite Coaching Diploma and a Level 5 CPCAB Diploma in Stress Management.