Brexit and VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity

On 2nd July, Huffington Post published the headline, “EU Referendum: A Guide To The Most F*cked Up Week In UK Political History”, well I might not agree with the wording, but the sentiment is pretty true. I don’t intend to go into blame and accusations as have been seen in many articles this week, but what do we do to manage at a time of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity?

Since the UK voted on the 23rd June to leave the EU, British politics has seen Prime Minister David Cameron resign, resulting in a leadership battle, but Boris Johnson, prominent figure in the ‘leave’ campaign, confirmed that he will not stand for leader of the conservative party and so will not be the next PM. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition, has received a vote of no confidence from his own party, and Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party, is seeking another referendum for Scotland to separate from the UK. Economically, the pound dropped to levels not seen since 1985, and share prices on the FTSE fell by 8%.

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In my lifetime I have never seem such turmoil and uncertainty. As I woke up to hear the results of the EU referendum, my world had completely changed. A week later the uncertainty continues; when, what, how, are questions that have not been answered. When will Britain leave the EU? No one knows; the process will not start until article 50 is triggered, and there is no clarity as to when this will be, even then the process could take 2 years. What will exiting the EU mean for my family and me? No one knows, this is untrodden ground. How will Britain trade with Europe after separation? Again no one knows.

This is an unprecedented period of economic and political uncertainty. This is a VUCA time, a period of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. VUCA is a term that came into common use in the 1990s, and originated in the US military at the time of the cold war. VUCA, means that nothing is predictable, and past experience tells you nothing about what is to come. VUCA stands for:

  • Volatility: This is a high rate of change, in which the nature, speed and volume of change does not take a predictable pattern.
  • Uncertainty: A lack of clarity around the present and the future creates unpredictability. Past events are no longer predictors of the future, making forecasting and decision making difficult.
  • Complexity: Multiple factors work together, with many layers impacting each other, numerous causes and possibilities leads to overwhelming confusion.
  • Ambiguity: There is a confusion of reality, there is a lack of clarity around the meaning of events and so there is confusion over what steps to take.

As I describe Brexit as a ‘VUCA’ state, I get a sense of fear, I don’t understand what this means for my family, and what I hoped for my daughter’s future may no longer be possible. So how on earth do we handle a VUCA situation and come out the other side when this is so enormous and complex?

There are some writers that talk about leadership in a VUCA world. When faced with a VUCA situation we need to do two things, get curious and get out of our comfort zone. Being curious means stopping, looking and listening, asking, probing and challenging through open-ended questions. Understanding overcomes uncertainty.

When things are complex, we can seek clarity, and make sense of chaos. We can talk to others and collaborate to seek different perspectives (rather than competing to be right). In a world of growing social media, we are able to do this more widely and more quickly than ever before.

Ambiguity is overcome by agility. Based on the responses to our questions and collaborations, we can be agile, and consider alternatives, all possible alternatives, possibilities that we may not have considered in the past.

An antidote to the volatility of VUCA is a clear vision. I’ve left this element of VUCA to last, as this may be the most difficult in our situation. Many writers talk about business leaders communicating a clear direction for their organisation. However, with the turmoil at the top of British politics, there is no leadership, and so there is no clear vision. Uncomfortable as it might seem, maybe we have to be patient and wait. In that time, we can remain curious, seek understanding and be agile. We can set our own vision for the future, and through dialogue and collaboration, the future becomes clear.

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