How do we disrupt in a VUCA world?

We live in a connected society where change is fast-paced, constant, and unpredictable. The VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) acronym was coined in the late 1980s to describe the indescribable and to capture the intangible. It is now more relevant than ever as we look towards the future and realize we need to quickly make decisions for our businesses with no long-term data to help guide us.

As a result, last month we brought together trailblazers and leaders from the Calgary business community to discuss disruption, resilience, and what the future of work looks like – not only in Calgary, but throughout North America. With a lens on strategic planning and the impact on the global workforce, the conversation was passionate, diverse and insightful.


VUCA Before and After the Pandemic

Back in the early days of the pandemic the times were “unprecedented” – everyone was collectively experiencing an enormous shift in our lives all at the same time. At first there was a lot of rallying around “togetherness” – but does anyone even remember the massive One World: Together at Home benefit concert? According to Guinness World Records, “The show made history by setting the record titles for most musical acts to perform at a remote music festival and most money raised for charity by a remote music festival.”

With labour shortages, supply chain issues, and an uncertain economy – it’s no surprise that “togetherness” rings flat today. Canadians are currently living in a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. So how can business leaders possibly plan for the future of their business when hindsight can no longer provide the benefit of foresight?


Success is a team sport 

Many organizations weren’t prepared for the market uncertainty in the early days of the pandemic, resulting in mass layoffs, reduced budgets, and economic disaster for many businesses. Things have only become more uncertain since then, but many businesses have learned from errors made early on — while some found renewed success, some no longer exist at all. 

“Bringing together bright minds and different perspectives from a variety of industries is important for navigating this new world of work,” says Craig Brown, CEO of Agilus. “Success is team sport, and it’s the people we surround ourselves with who allow us to achieve it.”


Reframing VUCA

At this point we can’t escape living in a VUCA world. Ignoring the conditions around us and hoping everything will blow over or trying to shoehorn outdated business practices are pointless endeavours that simply won’t work right now. 

Instead, organizations are finding success by flipping VUCA over and reframing it with a positive, solution-focused mindset. 

Developed by Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future, VUCA Prime is a behavioural leadership model that counteracts each element of VUCA with a forward-thinking response.


Vision vs. Volatility

Economic and environmental conditions have been in constant flux in recent years, making it challenging for leaders to make prudent decisions based on these factors. Instead of trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, instead focus on vision over volatility. 

Transformational change leader, Milvio di Bartolomeo says, “The vision should be a compelling picture of the future that aligns stakeholders around the purpose of the transformation, the scale of the ambition and the nature of the benefits.” 

Speaking at our recent panel event, Charles Duncan – EVP Integration & Strategic Projects for WestJet – says, “After 9/11 North American airline traffic fell by about 20% for about six months, and we thought that was an existential crisis going from 2001 into 2002. Fast forward 20 years later to the onset of COVID and we were down 90% for more than a year. Managing that from a workforce perspective, from a revenue perspective – all of it has been a real challenge.” 

It's hard to put a positive spin on the kind of financial damage that’s been done, but there’s solace in the fact that within the airline industry WestJet isn’t alone. “The positive now is that we’re growing,” Duncan says. “By peak summer (July/August) we’ll be back to 2019 levels. We’re just happy we’re still around to see this growth and recovery.” 

Interestingly, WestJet has recently gone “back to its roots” according to new CEO, Alexis von Hoensbroech. After taking his first 100 days to fully immerse himself within the organization he recently announced his renewed vision for WestJet — essentially focusing on enhancing its strengths, and problem solving its weaknesses.


Understanding vs. Uncertainty

Volatility and uncertainty go hand and hand, but so do vision and understanding. When uncertainty is abundant, it’s time to explore and experiment in order to increase understanding of external factors.

While the available talent pool continues to shrink month over month in Canada, some businesses are looking to understand how they can create their own talent ecosystems to help Canadians launch and grow their careers.

“I can’t tell you how many times people say they can’t get their foot in the door,” says Katherine Emberly – President, Business at Shaw Communications. “One of the most important things we can do to build our own talent ecosystems is to create a talent pipeline and make it super easy for someone to get their foot in the door. That’s the Canadian dream – that you can be anything here, and I think that’s actually a lot harder than people believe.”

For business leaders who want to grow their organizations this means encouraging empathy and exercising critical thinking skills in their employees. The world has changed a lot, and when we continuously rely on old patterns to inform future thinking we aren’t setting ourselves up for success and understanding. There was once a time when the “tried and true” thought for efficiently sifting through resumes was to filter out “job-hoppers,” but with the number of Canadians who faced job instability over the last few years having a gap on your resume can no longer be seen as a red flag, and many agree it perhaps never should have been in the first place.


Clarity vs Complexity

Finding clarity within the chaos can be a complex task for sure. But instead of dwelling on the complexity of our VUCA world, we need to untangle ourselves from the things we cannot change and focus on what’s within our control.

CEO & co-founder of CruxOCM, Vicki Knott, realized early in her chemical engineering career that the rigid, archaic methods in place in control rooms could not only be safer, but also more sustainable. She set out to change the oil and gas industry by bringing in diverse perspectives and better, safer standards to the field through automation, and as a result — CruxOCM was born.

“Nobody asked for our product, they didn’t even know it was possible in the control room,” says Knott. “We didn’t wait to be asked, it’s tough to do that. If you’re a public company going quarter by quarter you’re just trying to meet customer demand, there’s not a lot of time to think outside the box.”

One answer, Knott suggests, is a tactical solution to encourage more innovation and risk taking for middle-management decision makers. “Often their bonuses and pay structures are based on saving money, and even though they’re told to be innovative and work with startups, their KPIs aren’t based on that,” Knott says. “I think adjusting KPIs could be the answer to that – get rewarded for taking risks even if they don’t pan out, rather than potentially punished.”

When decision-makers are free from fear of punishment and can see a clear relationship between well-informed risk taking and their own KPIs, versus simply keeping the bottom line to a minimum, they become better problem solvers and begin to seek more innovative solutions.


Agility vs Ambiguity

As our world evolves business leaders will encounter more and more situations with no clear precedent to rely on for decision making. Organizations need to cut through the ambiguity of red tape and bureaucracy if they want to find continued success in this new world of work.

“The thing that keeps me up at night is speed,” says Nic Beique – CEO & founder of Helcim. “We see it over and over – tech companies grow, but they also slow down. I’ve seen it where it doesn’t take that much scale for everything to come to a grind and for process to take over.”

That’s not to say that clearly defined processes are completely unnecessary, instead it means developing your team in such a way where they feel comfortable being able to make decisions even when the answer isn’t black or white.

“It’s all about making sure we keep the mindset of keeping processes as minimal as possible and encouraging the empowerment of people,” Beique says. “Risk aversion just kind of creeps into an organization, so it’s important to stay on top of it or we risk innovation.”


Looking toward the future of work

The future of work has arrived, and we are currently navigating through unsteady waters. We can be spectators and watch it all unfold, or we can actively take part in its transformation.

 “We are focused on the future of work and know our clients rely on us to deliver talent solutions to drive better outcomes,” Brown adds. “Our focus on being agile within chaos has allowed us to get creative with our service offerings including Technology Advisory and Professional Services to help organizations realize their digital transformation.”

 At Agilus we see the future of work as a dynamic, mobile, global workforce employed by businesses who are focused on mutual success and better outcomes. Are you ready to join us in leading the way for an energized and boundless workforce? We want to hear from you! In the meantime, learn more about our view on the future of work here.


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