VUCA: It's not as new (or as scary) as it sounds

Have you heard about VUCA? If you're not a business guru, you may have missed this management acronym. It stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. It's a slightly terrifying description of what is really business-as-usual in a world of change and interaction.

Management theorists might think VUCA is new, but here's how the 19th century poet John Keats described the quality that made writers great:

'At once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously- I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.'

VUCA has been with man a long, long time, and the best of our thinkers have found ways to embrace it. If it's still too complicated for you: consider this picture. Is it health food? (No). Is it healthy food (Possibly).

In one category or frame, this is not clean, healthy food. In another category, this represents an experience that might be a healthy antidote to stress or a celebration of good things. Both are true at the same time. That's what a paradox is: a situation where opposites are equally true at the same time. If you've ever felt a treat would be good for you, you've engaged in paradoxical thinking.

Paradoxical thinking, the ability to move easily between apparent opposites, is the way that people have always navigated VUCA. When you're overwhelmed by complexity, the answer is to identify the times you have already accepted contradiction without stress:
  • a time you thought for yourself as part of a great team
  • a time when music left you feeling both focused and flexible
  • a time when energy kept you glued to a task instead of sending you bouncing
The more you are curious about your experience of paradox, the more you are likely to find ways to navigate VUCA with grace, productivity and satisfaction.


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