The VUCA Advantage

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We live in a VUCA world. VUCA stands for volatile, uncertain, ambiguous and complex, and is a concept first developed by the US Army War College in the late 1980’s. Far more than a trendy phrase describing the ever-changing world in which we are called to lead, each of the concepts in this acronym requires our organizations to act in specific ways to maximize our impact — call it the VUCA Advantage. 

Distilling down the components of the chaotic environment before us is the first step in positioning ourselves for success.

  1. Volatile means that a shift is fast and unexpected. It has to do with the unpredictable rate of change.
  2. Uncertain means the past is not a good predictor of the future, resulting in a lack of clarity about the best decision in the present.
  3. Complex means there is lots information to process and multiple inter-related variables impact decision-making.
  4. Ambiguous means that cause and effect are unclear, and there may be a number of “unknown unknowns.”

So how should you respond to gain a VUCA Advantage — to act in ways that position you for ultimate success in the midst of the fog?

  1. Volatility requires advance preparation, anticipation. What plans/supplies/safety nets do you have in place for a “rainy day”, or times when you have to pivot with little to no notice? Such preparation allows you to be reliable in the mist of volatility.
  1. Uncertainty is best addressed with information. What are you doing now to stay attuned to new developments, expand your knowledge base, and remain curious? Having a depth of knowledge results in you being seen as trustworthy when things are uncertain.
  1. Complexity calls for strong problem-solving. What organizational systems, structures or experts do you have in place to bring clarity to a myriad of seemingly disconnected variables?  Connecting the dots in advance allows you to bring logic and transparency to situations that may seem anything but clear.
  1. Ambiguity calls for experimentation. A culture that rewards innovation, and has a tolerance for making mistakes, learning, adapting and trying again, strengthens ability of the organization to adapt to change. It empowers people in the organization to become active participants in problem-solving.

Notice anything about the suggestions above? All of them require pre-emptive efforts — having specific systems, processes, mindsets and cultures in place BEFORE you are in the midst of a crisis. The VUCA Advantage is not about having all of the answers in advance. It is about creating an environment where you and your team have the solid confidence that you can find the answers and thus weather whatever VUCA storm might be coming your way.

Advantage indeed.

The Stories We Tell

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What stories are you telling yourself about the people or situations you are facing today? 

Whether we recognize it or not, all of us have a creative writer hard at work in our heads. Numerous times a day, we make assumptions or judgments about the “why” of someone’s behavior. We fill in the blanks regarding a person’s intent in ways that are consistent with the plot line echoing in our head. “See, she is always trying to make my life difficult” . . . “What is he trying to pull by leaving us out of the conversation?” . . . “They clearly don’t have a good grasp of the situation.” What’s more, based on the stories we tell ourselves, we may then act in ways that create a self-fulfilling prophesy. If I make decisions based on the assumption “he is trying to pull something,” chances are my behaviors are only adding to the storyline in “his” head.

So how do you change the story?

Replace the villain with a hero in your mind. What if someone you trusted or respected displayed the same behavior? Would you automatically assume the worst, or would you stop and think about a host of scenarios that might be driving their actions? Chances are, you could think of a range of reasons — other than ill intent — why the “hero” behaved as they did. Hmmm . . . is it possible one of those reasons was also driving the “villain’s” actions? Taking even a few moments to “change the characters” in your mind can impact how you respond.

Cultivate curiosity. Another option for changing the story is to ask the other person to set the scene. “Help me understand . . .” is a great way to gain new perspective. Unlike “why did you do that?” seeking to understand doesn’t put people on the defensive. It doesn’t point fingers. It merely asks for their assistance in gaining clarity. And adding even a few additional details to the picture unfolding in your head can change your opinion about the best course of action.

Invest in editing. Good editors not only change or remove details that weaken the overall story, they also serve to confirm the parts that contribute to a stronger conclusion. Editors are not immersed in creating the story, and thus they don’t approach the situation with pre-conceived expectations. An objective eye can either support your storyline or poke holes in it. Either way, you end up greater confidence in the result. Find an objective “editor” to give you feedback, especially when you feel certain characters getting under your skin.

The stories a leader tells have ripples of impact. The first draft of a story is rarely the best. 

Aftershocks and Opportunities

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The need for strong leaders is never more evident than in the midst of a crisis. People with the ability to assess the immediate situation, pivot as necessary, and take decisive action help everyone maintain a sense of calm and collective focus through the storm. And yet, responding to the immediate crisis is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of a leader’s responsibilities. Leaders simultaneously need to lay the groundwork for the long term — by preparing for “cascading aftershocks and reset opportunities.”

Aftershocks are shake-ups or instabilities that occur after the initial major “earthquake” and may continue for weeks, months or years. And one aftershock can lead to — cascade into — another, causing an impact that is delayed by time and space from the original upheaval but no less challenging to your organization. What key organizational drivers suddenly seem uncertain? It is the unknowns that lead to aftershocks. How would you respond in the best case scenario . . . or the worst? As a leader, you need to be thinking about positioning yourself to respond to future unknowns, even in the midst of the original crisis.

Reset opportunities are the chance to re-write the rules. (Link to blog 313 – old rules don’t apply). Based on what you know, what suddenly feels possible? What entrenched systems have been upended in such a way that you now have a chance to change them with far less pushback that you would have received pre-crisis? The key is to act quickly — to implement new approaches before the “stability” of the new normal sets in. Yes, that means you need to be looking for reset opportunities in the heat of the moment.

While that may seem like a lot to juggle at one time, looking for aftershocks and opportunities actually allows you to focus in a way you otherwise might not. What key organizational drivers suddenly seem uncertain? Pick no more than two or three, and then move all the other uncertainties to the back burner so you can focus on developing scenarios around those key drivers. Likewise, which one or two opportunities present the greatest opportunity to significantly change systems. Place your energy there.

In the middle of a crisis, too many leaders get caught in the swirling fear and the fog — the “what ifs,” “what abouts,” and “what nows”.  Rather than adding to the sense of overwhelm, considering aftershocks and opportunities just might bring best way to find a path forward into focus.

Leadership Shark Music

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Imagine yourself walking down a winding woodland path. The birds are singing . . . rays of sunshine are peaking through the trees . . . wildflowers are blowing in the breeze. Nice, right? Now, imagine the exact same scenario except this time, you hear the soundtrack from Jaws echoing in your head . . .  All of a sudden, you are on high alert, scanning the landscape, waiting for something to jump out at you. Now instead of enjoying a pleasant walk, you imagine what horrible things might be lying in wait for you around the next bend. Even just reading these words, do you feel your body tense up? In our work with severely traumatized kids, we call that “hearing shark music.”

Right now, a lot of leaders are hearing shark music. I’m not saying that there aren’t real, legitimate reasons for that, however shark music is a sign that you are functioning out of back brain — the reactionary, fight, flight, freeze part of your brain. If it feels like you may be spending too much time hanging out in back brain (and if you are, I guarantee your people are, too), what steps can you take to tap into the thinking, reasoning part of your brain?

  • Find a way to center yourself. There are lots of ways to do this . . . exercise, talking to family or friends, deep breathing, prayer, replaying a funny memory in your mind . . . Taking even a few moments to focus on something other than the crisis at hand serves to turn down the volume on the shark music, allowing you to keep the challenges before you in context. And if you are thinking you don’t have time for any of those things right now, it’s probably a good sign that you need to make time for them.
  • Focus on what you do know. Yes, at the current time there are lots of things you probably don’t have answers to. News flash, there are always lots of things you don’t have answers to. The difference is, shark music causes you to feed into the unknowns rather than calmly consider the options before you. What you focus on grows in your mind. Focus more on what you do know than what you don’t.
  • Make a conscious decision. You can always change your mind if you get new information, however the longer you stew about the unknown monsters that could be lurking around the corner, the louder the shark music gets. Each decision turns down the volume. Making a decision doesn’t necessarily make the risks go away, but it does increase your confidence (and that of your people) that you will be able to respond to whatever comes your way.

You may not be able to totally turn off the shark music, but you do get to control the volume. How’s that sound to you?

Solutions Not Sides

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We live in polarizing times. Increasingly it seems there are those who will try to push you, and your organization, to take a stance “for” or “against” something, as if those are the only two options that people have . . . all in or not at all . . . which side are you on? In my experience, most issues are far more nuanced than the extremes by which they may be defined. Because of that, when you try to force people into an either/or position, you may actually cause them to back away from the conversation altogether, thereby limiting your possibilities for finding a path forward.

I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t be “all in” on some issues. You should be. I am suggesting that opening your mind, rather than digging in your heels, may be a more effective way to arrive at an effective solution. There are a few things you should be prepared for, however, if you choose the path of solutions rather than sides:

  • This approach is likely to aggravate people on both “sides” of an issue. You may simultaneously be accused of being too outspoken and too understated.  Ironically, this “double pushback” probably means you are well-positioned to serve as a bridge between opposing viewpoints.
  • Don’t expect easy or obvious answers. Polarizing issues develop one layer at a time. Differing beliefs, values, experiences, and the fact that there is rarely a straight line between cause and effect, all contribute to wicked problems that defy simple solutions. It takes thick-skinned, open-minded leadership to navigate a collective path forward.
  • You have to walk through the tough stuff. This is easier if you set clear guidelines at the outset . . . We are going to assume positive intent on everyone’s part . . . We will remain curious and seek common ground . . . We recognize that uncomfortable conversations are often required for progress.
  • There are LOTS of rabbit trails. The more more specific you are about the solution you are seeking, the less likely you are to be distracted by “what abouts”, “and alsos” or impassioned rhetoric. “Sides” tend to be driven by emotion, “solutions” by thoughtful consideration. Leaders acknowledge feelings while still focusing on the end goal.
  • You are playing a long game. In spite of the “instant everything” world in which we live, finding long-term solutions takes patience, and a recognition that there will be days when you will take two steps forward and one step back. Progress often happened one small step at a time.

And one more thing . . . as a leader, it is your responsibility to choose the best position and path forward for your organization. Actions speak louder that words. So what are yours saying?

Sides or solutions?

When The Old Rules Don’t Apply

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Much has been written about the “unprecedented” times in which we currently find ourselves. I’m guessing your email, like mine, is filled with invitations to webinars about how to navigate the unknowns, lead through uncertainty, and adapt to the new normal. The tone of these promotional efforts ranges from frantic (the sky is falling) to overly confident (our presenter has “the” answer to the challenges before you). Perhaps the one constant amid all of the messaging is this — the old rules no longer apply. If that idea makes you uneasy, here’s the up side: right now, you have a unique opportunity to re-write the rules.

How do you go about re-writing the rules?

  • Start with your values. Always. What does your organization stand for and how can you infuse that into the “new rules?” Do you want to be more empowering, collaborative, impactful, inclusive . . . What would it look like to highlight the best of your organization? Don’t tell me it’s not possible. You’re re-writing the rules.
  • Focus on the biggest pain point. What do you want to be different . . . for those you serve, for your organization, your community? What are the barriers to accomplishing your mission? As Winston Churchill noted, “Never waste a good crisis.” People are most open to considering a new way of doing things when it is clear that the old rules no longer apply.
  • Look at the situation with new eyes. Changing variables change perspectives. “Crazy ideas” that you might never have considered in the past may suddenly seem possible. “What if . . .” and “Why couldn’t we . . .” open doors to new opportunities while viewing challenges through the lens of the old rules keeps you stuck in the past.
  • Find your footing. One of the biggest challenges in unsettled times is that it feels like there are so many unknowns. There are . . . and wallowing in the uncertainty only makes it worse. Make a decision. Take a step. Course correct if you need to, and then keep going. Forward motion is always a stronger position than sitting on your heels waiting for the perfect solution to appear. And each step you take helps re-write the rules.
  • Lead. Quit waiting around for permission. The old rules no longer apply.

If you’re looking for clear answers, you’ll have to wait on someone to re-write the rules. For the rest of you, it’s time to step out and start writing.

Calling All Elephants

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Originally Published October 29, 2014

In virtually any leadership team, no matter how high functioning, there will be times when the group is hesitant to bring up a question or concern. Perhaps it is because the topic is something about which the leader is passionate, or really committed to making happen. Maybe they feel like a decision has already been made, or the organization is “too far down the road” to change course, or that sharing a concern will undermine a relationship they have with someone else on the team. Regardless of the cause, an attuned leader may sense the caution in the room, but not be able to put a finger on the source of the unease. It is times like these that a team needs someone who is willing to “name the elephant in the room.”

I am blessed to have a member of my leadership team who willingly takes on this role. She is rarely the first one to speak up, but when she senses people are dancing around something that is weighing on them, she will either name the issue if she knows what it is, or point out that she senses some hesitancy and asks about it. She is able to do this in a supportive, non-confrontational way that makes it feel safe for people to speak their mind. (Not that speaking their mind is usually a problem with my team, but you catch my drift.) Her simple acknowledgement or inquiry has the effect of almost instantly making the conversation more “real”. You can almost feel the room take a deep breath because questions or concerns can now be openly discussed. At times, with additional information, the concerns are allayed. Other times, we tweak the direction or change course all together based on the conversation. In virtually every case though, we all leave the meeting feeling better about it. There is no need to have a “meeting after the meeting” because we addressed the concerns where they should be addressed — amongst the entire team.

If you don’t have someone on your team who naturally assumes this role, why not assign the task of naming the elephant in the room? If it has been assigned to someone, there won’t be the hesitancy of speaking out of turn … they are simply doing what you asked them to do. The effect is the same whether the elephant namer is a voluntary or assigned role. You as the leader have an added layer of protection against unnamed undercurrents that could ultimately undermine your efforts.

One note of caution … This strategy only works if the leader is willing to hear and respond to  feedback, even when that feedback messes with well-laid plans. Elephants only come out to play when it feels safe to do so. And if an elephant gets shot down in an embarrassing or derogatory way, don’t expect other ones to show up at future meetings. They’ll instead decide to dance around amongst small groups after the meeting.

In today’s complex, fast-paced, circus of a world, it takes everyone’s best thinking to achieve the optimum outcome. And sometimes, you can only get to that best thinking by seeing, and naming, the elephant in the room.

Are you in the top third?

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It should concern all of us as leaders when the headlines tout record high employee engagement in the US  . . . and that record high number is 35%! Just over one in three employees is actively engaged in their work in this country. While the number of actively disengaged staff in 2019 also tied its lowest level at 13%, that still leaves 52% of staff in this country as “not engaged”. More than half of workers put in their time at their organization, but not their energy or passion. And passion, or lack thereof, impacts performance.

What can you do to increase engagement among those you would hope to lead?

  • Be clear on why they should engage. Like one sentence clear. Why your mission, why your organization, why this role? Engagement is about an emotional connection, an investment in seeing your organization succeed. And if you as a leader don’t buy into the “why” at a bone-deep level, your people won’t either.
  • Connect the dots. Do your people know how their particular role, how their unique gifts and graces, impact the organizational why? Leaders need to be intentional about connecting the dots for their people, so there is a clear understanding about how their individual contribution leads to overall success for the organization. Of course, to do that well . . .
  • You need to know your people. How can you help someone recognize how their unique gifts and graces contribute to organizational success if you don’t know what those gifts and graces are? Think you have too many people in your organization to know the specialized skills and talents that each brings to the table? Have you tried, or have you just put that possibility in the “too hard pile”?

Yes, knowing your people takes intentional effort. So does managing the budget, but you find a way to do that, right? When you are engaged with your people, they will be more likely to engage with you and your organization. Don’t know where to start? Make a personal connection with at least one employee each day — and not just those you work most closely with. Send someone an email, or better yet a hand-written note, recognizing them personally for something they have done. Strike up a conversation when your paths cross and ask them something about themselves or their work (and then let them do the talking, and you do the listening). Rather than sending a blanket request for input, directly ask one or more people for their thoughts. We will go the extra mile for people we know far more than we will for some generic idea of “staff” or “administration.”

For those of you who may be thinking you have heard all of this before, I have one question: Are you doing it? If so, welcome to the top third!

Gut Check Leadership

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Some people decide to pursue positions of leadership for the perceived external trappings of the position, but more often than not — at least in the case of the best leaders — leadership is an inside job. A sense of vocation. According to Parker Palmer, “Vocation at its deepest level is, ‘This is something I can’t not do, for reasons I’m unable to explain to anyone else and don’t fully understand myself, but that are nonetheless compelling.’”

“Something I can’t not do.” That sentiment has driven many a leader to press forward in the midst of turbulent times. That doesn’t mean the path becomes easy, it means that the leader believes the end goal is worth the effort . . . worth having their intentions judged by individuals sitting in a different chair . . . worth the risk of making difficult choices . . . worth taking actions that fly in the face of “best practice” or popular opinion.

Certainly, leaders make decisions every day that don’t require this level of “gut check” consideration, but if you lead for very long, that day will come. What is a gut check consideration? It is a test of a person’s resolve, commitment, or priorities regarding a particular course of action. Are you going listen to your gut, or all the voices “out there” with easier, ready-made solutions? It is easy to say “theoretically” how you would respond, but it can be oh so difficult when you are in the midst of the challenge. So how should you approach a gut-check situation?

  1. Listen to others. Not just to the loudest voices. Not just to those who support your thinking. Not just to the “experts” or most popular opinions. Listen to those who disagree, and listen with a desire to understand rather than defend. Listen respectfully and with curiosity. Listen to those closest to the challenge, who may rarely be asked for input.
  2. Take time to reflect. Fast thinking is intuitive and emotional. Slow thinking is more deliberative and logical. Without taking the time to reflect, it is easy to jump from A to C or D . . . to make assumptions about why someone is behaving in a particular way. Reflection may cause you to revise your thinking, or it may reinforce your beliefs, but it is always time well spent.
  3. Listen to your gut. In my experience, it is usually smarter than your head. Oh, your head may try to reason with it, but that still small voice can be pretty persistent. And if you have taken the time to listen to others and reflect, you probably know the answer before you even get to this point. Chances are you were just hoping to find an easier answer.

The more challenging the times, the more important it is to have leaders willing to dig deep inside, to respond to that still small voice urging you to do the hard thing on behalf of a great cause. Is this your time? Listen to your gut.

The Power of AND

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Originally Published February 4, 2015

Take a moment and consider how your leadership perspective might change if the words “but” and “or” were banned from your vocabulary . . .

That would mean you could never again say things like:

“What our client really needs is “X”, but we could never get “Y” to pay for it.”

“Do you want me to look at the big picture, or deal with the details?”

“Sure that sounds like a great idea, but let’s be practical.”

“But” and “or” limit your potential. They are creativity killers. They require trade-offs. They feed into a scarcity mentality. “And”, on the other hand, is about abundance. It is about stretching your thinking in new ways, and considering multiple possibilities.  It’s about not stopping when you run into the first closed door . . . or even the second.

Make no mistake, infusing “and” in an organization can be challenging . . . some might even say not realistic . . . and yet it’s worth the effort to stick with it.  When you reach a tipping point, when “and” becomes part of your culture, a new energy is released and exciting things start to happen. “And” attracts the kind of people who reach for more, who aren’t willing to settle, who have an inner drive to live your mission. Don’t believe me? Consider two organizational approaches to the same situation . . .

“This family really needs X, but our contract won’t pay for it.” (Depressing dead end, right?)

“This family really needs X, and our contract won’t pay for it, so how else can we help them get their needs met?” (Feel the energy, and the permission to be creative?)

Same situation. Change three letters — but to and — and suddenly staff are at least thinking about different options, peering outside the box to look for new possibilities. No one broke any rules, or ignored reality, they simply didn’t view the current situation as an end of the discussion. Which organization do you think is going to attract the most passionate, motivated staff — the game-changers who can ultimately help your organization succeed?

If you want “and” people in your organization, it is up to you to role model “and” behavior. Try it for a week. Stop yourself every time you respond to a challenge with “but” or “or”, and consider what new possibilities might present themselves if your approach was “and.” At the end of the week, reflect on your outlook, your energy, and your accomplishments.

Good week? Things seem to fall into place? Enthused about pursuing a new idea?

That, my friends, is the power of “and.