A critical glossary of contemporary management terms XIV – VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous).

If management is understood as a discipline which tries to control things, to place things under one’s hand (manus), then the concept of complexity poses something of a dilemma. The phenomenon one is trying to control is, by very definition, uncontrollable. This doesn’t prevent thinking about it, describing it, noticing its effects, positing what might or might not be helpful in dealing with it. But the question is when these attempts to identify, clarify and name tip over into hubris and begin to suggest that a complex world isn’t really so complex, or can be managed, or with particular tips and tricks, subdued to the will of the rational manager. Complexity is assimilated as another novel and/or fashionable real world phenomenon which will succumb to management science and clear thinking. Complexity is something a manager acts on rather than acts in. grid

The idea of acting on is the other route to taming complexity, to suggest that sometimes the world is complex and sometimes it isn’t, and it is up to the manager to decide. I will come back to this way if thinking later when I discuss some of the intellectual assumptions which are revealed in VUCA discussions about complexity.

The coining of the concept of VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) as a way of introducing complexity helps us investigate how radically the idea of a complex world challenges that notion that we can predict and control. And noticing how the concept is mobilised and described by particular traditions of thought gives us insight into how management discourses sustain and renew themselves, sometimes consuming everything in their wake.

So on the one hand, it is quite helpful to have a simplified acronym to grasp a concept which can otherwise generate a proliferation of defining sub-characteristics. Too many characteristics can be confusing for hard-pressed managers who are trying to assimilate something difficult. We might credit the coining of ‘VUCA world’ with helping complexity be more widely accepted (along with the idea that there are ‘wicked problems’, a term I will treat in a future post). This is a reason to be grateful for it.

But notice how the framing also domesticates the concept. Why does it need to be four characteristics, for example? Well, because this produces the neat Cartesian co-ordinates so beloved of business schools and consultancy companies. It creates something familiar and comforting. The two by two grid is a staple of many management seminars (think Ansoff matrix or Boston matrix), and in this sense it is symbolic currency. It is, to a degree, reassuring that complexity can also fit to a grid, even if the four given characteristics are lazy (doesn’t the term complex comprise the other three anyway? And what about emergence, for example?), and ill-defined.

It is also interesting to note how breaking down the idea of a complex world into four pieces quickly leads to highly abstract and anodyne prescriptions for dealing with each of them, which are then presented causally, in and if-then manner. For example, if you find yourself in a VUCA environment it’s important to be ‘open to uncertainty’, to ‘embrace change’, to take a ‘balanced approach to risk’. These prescriptions turn on the usual notion of the ideal of an equilibrium state, and offer superficially helpful advice about how to achieve it: through embracing, being comfortable, becoming self-aware, and of course, being transparent. Conventional management wisdom is only ever one step away from self-help literature. It shares many similarities in that it is individualised, it tends to the positive, and it is reassuring and uplifting. You can be your best VUCA self. If we were to turn to a psychodynamic interpretation of the function of VUCA and its advocates we would recognise that the literature and advice is aimed at containing anxiety rather than provoking insight and the movement of thinking.

Perhaps more troubling is when prescriptions for dealing with VUCA environments allow for representing very familiar management tropes dressed in complexity clothes but bearing managerialist ideology. Given that there is still an overwhelming presupposition that every organisational dilemma turns on a question of leadership in more orthodox management scholarship, there can be no surprise that some VUCA advocates consider that it requires a particular style of leader. However, the VUCA leader is not so different from ordinarily ideal leaders. For example, the way to deal with a VUCA environment, is for leaders to set out a Vision, develop Understanding, achieving Clarity and be Adaptable and agile (a parallel VUCA back in civilian clothes), of course encouraging everyone else to be adaptable. Change is good and it is important not to resist, rather than asking change for whom and who benefits. All credit to management scholars for sweating their assets, but exactly what is new about this dependency theory of leadership?

In the course of this post I have been considering the way in which the packaging of complexity as VUCA has in some ways helped to take complexity into the mainstream, but at the cost of taming it and making it amenable to the orthodox tropes of leadership and management.  These are presented as familiar anodyne abstractions in linear terms. At its worst, it allows for the smuggling of highly managerialist ideas, that complex environments give even greater justification for the need for particular leaders invested with the usual exceptional abilities of prophecy and a unique insight into the human condition. One of the clearest functions of the discourse, then, is for the preservation and representation of what we might think of as the current orthodoxy. There is very little which is radical about it in terms of deepening our understanding of what complexity means for everyday organisational life.

One further thought about discourses on complexity and the move to domesticate the radical implications of taking complexity seriously, which I mentioned earlier. This is when scholars suggest that deciding when things are complex and when they are not is matter of management choice: sometimes they are chaotic, sometimes complex and sometimes they are just complicated or even simple. Before deciding on how to respond, managers need to determine which quadrant of the grid they are in.  To a degree this distinction does speak directly to the complexity science literature where a lot of work has been done to think about how we might define a complex system as opposed to one which is just complicated. Definitions are important to advance the field and to be clear what we are talking about.

But in terms of the complexity of nature I find myself siding with Karen Barad, the theoretical physicist, on this one. In her book Meeting the Universe Half Way she rejects the notion that quantum physics is only applicable when investigating the minute, atomic particles, but not at grander scale, in astronomy, for example. She argues that mathematically quantum physics is applicable at all degrees of scale irrespective of whether we can measure the quantum effects. Equally I argue, nature, including social life which is part of nature,  is always complex. Complicated and simple ways of describing phenomena may be helpful, they may even be necessary, but they will always be insufficient. One of the functions of two-by-two girds which separate out 4 states from simple to chaotic have the function of restoring what John Dewey described as a god’s eye view. They reinstate the fallacy of managerial control with a vantage point outside the environment which is considered complex: the manager acts on something which is somehow separate. But in my view complex or reductionist understandings of the world are not simply two equal choices to make which one can oscillate between at will, because they are contradictory.

So perhaps there is a role for concepts like VUCA if the prospect of a complex world is paralysing, or is taken to mean that there is no point in managers doing anything. Perhaps the most disturbing thing of all about complexity is the decentring effect of taking the phenomenon seriously: as a manager you are not in control, but you may still be in charge. Repackaging and representing something destabilising as familiar may certainly contain anxiety. So too may the notion that you can choose when something is complex and when it isn’t. What is most interesting to me is how some management scholars promoting a discipline predicated on notions of predictability and control will go to huge lengths to put managers back at the centre and back in charge when confronted with a radical challenge.


3 thoughts on “A critical glossary of contemporary management terms XIV – VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous).

  1. Stephen Billing

    HI Chris, another lucid discussion about how VUCA reinforces the status quo. I also like the soundbite “you might not be in control but you are in charge”


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