Tired of hearing the term “VUCA” at work?
Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity: You may be sick of the concepts the VUCA acronym represents — or simply tired of the acronym itself.
In recent years, many organizations have started liberally using the term as a way to articulate or find a metaphor for describing the changing world in which we live, work, lead, and play. But this is often done without digging into its meaning.
For several years, we’ve been approached by clients not only to design and deliver programs that help their managers lead through the turbulence that characterizes the modern world, but also specifically to avoid using the term VUCA.
We think this is partly because of its military origins and partly because VUCA seems to capture neither what they’re experiencing, nor how to lead through it.
A VUCA Alternative: RUPT
In response, we tapped our own knowledge and research about leading in complexity and developed an acronym that more readily connects the experience of turbulence with the leadership necessary to navigate the turbulence.
The acronym is a word in its own right, but not typically used alone: RUPT. As an acronym, its stands for Rapid, Unpredictable, Paradoxical, and Tangled:
- Rapid: The changes we experience come at us quickly. They overlap with each other like waves emerging from different sources crashing in mid-ocean.
- Unpredictable: We can analyze, strategize, and predict the future, but then something totally unexpected emerges (rapidly), challenging our assumptions and causing us to reframe our thinking.
- Paradoxical: As leaders, we’re so easily lured into believing complex challenges are problems with one right solution, rather than seeing them as polarities that must be leveraged if our teams and organizations are to be effective in both the short and long term. For example, we must innovate for the long term, yet we have current businesses that must be managed both in the short and long term. We might be tempted to choose one or the other, but even for the short term, we really need to do both.
- Tangled: Everything is connected to everything else. We hear terms that imply the connectedness of everything, like “the global village.” We live in multiple ecosystems, all of them having internal and external connections that we might overlook in our attempts to strategize and implement strategy effectively.
Rumpere, in Latin, means “to break, to burst.” With the prefix ab-, or “off,” the Latin forms abrumpere, “to break off.” And abruptus is the origin of the English word abrupt.
Rupture is an English word that still retains the literal meaning of “bursting,” as do disrupt and interrupt, all are derived from the same rumpere.
Dis-rupt-tion happens when RUPT is in play and leadership fumbles. Here are 3 possible scenarios:
- When an organization isn’t agile, or it over-relies on prediction, to the detriment of adapting.
- When the paradoxical tension between rapid adaptation and stable prediction (to name just one of many paradoxical tensions) freezes leadership.
- When rapid, unpredictable paradoxes are embedded in “tangled” causes and effect chaotic systems, triggering reactions that are more subjective than linear or logical.
If these RUPT situations sound all too familiar, here are 3 ways you can approach them.
Nurturing and Practicing Learning Agility
Since the turbulence of RUPT is relentless and nothing can be taken for granted, learning agility is essential.
CCL’s George Hallenbeck defines learning agility as: “the ability and willingness to learn from experience and subsequently apply that learning to perform successfully under new and challenging conditions.” Hallenbeck goes on to say: “It is an essential skill for leaders during times of change when both problems and their solutions lack clarity.”
In the RUPT environment, we don’t have the luxury of relying entirely on sending our leaders through leadership development experiences. Instead, we need to see real-life challenges and mentoring as part of the 70-20-10 model of leadership development.
The developmental experiences must be designed around leaders’ actual complex (RUPT) challenges so that they’re equipped with the mindset, skillset, and toolset to handle these and further challenges.
Developing Leadership Across Divides
We’ve researched and developed tools and processes that enable leaders to collaborate effectively across various forms of divides found within and external to their organizations. This enables leaders to create shared direction, alignment, and commitment so that they collaboratively develop innovative solutions to their RUPT challenges through a process of:
- Creating safety within their own groups.
- Genuinely respecting differences with others.
- Developing personal trust with others with whom they need to collaborate.
- Building community, and true lasting interdependence.
Leveraging Polarities Inherent in Complex Challenges
When leaders are confronted with complex challenges amidst RUPT, they tend to tap their well-developed problem-solving skills.
Such an approach can add even more complexity. Leaders need to take their thinking to a new level by recognizing seemingly unresolvable challenges not as problems to be solved but as polarities to be leveraged — to develop a mindset shifting from “either/or” thinking and decision-making to “both/and.”
When faced with the complex challenges riddled with competing priorities, a problem-solving approach applied independent of polarity thinking can lead to the worst of both worlds: a move towards the greatest fear associated with each dimension of the challenge rather than the desired and greatest purpose of thinking and acting in terms of polarities.
These are just some of the ways that organizations can approach RUPT environments. Read more about 6 creative competencies for navigating complex challenges or explore our Leading People Through Change workshop kit.