VUCA Decoding Chaos Series: Part 1, Introduction to VUCA
Updated: Nov 28, 2020
In January 2010 I found myself standing at a border checkpoint surrounded by a small team of seven other individuals. I’d only ever met one of them prior to that moment. All around us crowds of Haitians and Dominicans clamored for attention, food, and medical treatment. Only three days prior, an earthquake had devastated the nation of Haiti, reducing one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere to rubble.
Looking around our group - which I was leading - I realized that we were about to step off into one of the craziest circumstances of my life. We had only the food and water we were carrying on our backs. The best map we possessed I’d ripped out of the Wall Street Journal. There were reports of armed bandits on the highway we were preparing to travel down. We had no weapons for self defense, no radios to call for backup… and technically no backup to call. To make the chaos even more eerie, a thick cloud of dust hung low in the air, almost resembling a battlefield.
I was familiar with battlefields. In fact, it was my military experience that had led me to Jimani, a checkpoint on the Dominican - Haitian border.
I spent four years in the Marine Corps from 2005 to 2009, deploying on intense combat tours to both Iraq and Afghanistan. While in the military I learned to navigate chaos effectively by employing battle-tested frameworks and strategies developed over centuries in the crucible of combat.
Chaos, like many things on the battlefield like terrain or weather, can work for or against us. Despite this, most organizations frame chaos solely as an adversary and avoid it at all costs. This is both impractical and imprudent. First, the world is fast-moving and full of uncertainty. Chaos will happen, and simply hoping that it won’t is foolish. Second, by not preparing to survive - or better yet thrive - in chaos, leaders and organizations are leaving opportunity on the table.
So, if we are to conquer chaos we must first understand it. The US Army War College developed an acronym in the late 1980s to help us frame chaos. The acronym, VUCA, stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.
Each of these terms describes a particular type of chaos, defined by unique characteristics and challenges.
Volatile situations are unexpected and unstable but easy to understand. You know the variables but cannot control them. The duration of volatile situations is unknown. Think of the stock market. You know the levers that cause prices to go up and down, but you cannot control them.
Uncertain situations lack predictability and have many prospects for surprise. You understand basic cause and effect, but lack the information needed to leverage that understanding. Think of the game of Blackjack. You understand the rules of the game and how to win. You cannot pick your cards, but you know what they are. However, you only know 50% of the dealer’s hand.
Complex situations have countless interconnected parts and variables. The volume and nature of information is overwhelming. Causes have multi-order consequences. Think of Chess. After each player has made four moves on the board there are 288 billion possible board configurations. That’s a staggering amount of possibilities. An average chess game lasts forty moves, with an average of thirty options per move. Great chess players think multiple moves ahead and must account for all of those hundreds of options in their strategy.
Ambiguous situations are dominated by unknown-unknowns. Causal relationships are unclear or confusing. What is causing what? One plus one no longer equals two. Making things even more challenging, there is no precedent for what is occurring, reducing or eliminating our ability to rely on experience. The best analogy for ambiguity is getting dropped into a giant maze. You have no landmarks and no information. Every turn is just a guess, and it becomes impossible to mentally map what you are experiencing. The best you can do is to keep walking.
Each element of VUCA should sound somewhat terrifying, because that is what chaos tends to be – an unnerving scenario that stresses our systems and injects fear into decision making.
But if we understand chaos, then we can conquer it.
As I stood at that border checkpoint and made the final plans to cross into Haiti and enter one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes of the last century, it was my familiarity with chaos (in all forms) and understanding of how to mitigate it that gave me the confidence to finally slap the hood of our truck and order our drivers to roll out. The result was that while others hesitated, we acted, and that action led us to save hundreds of lives in Port-au-Prince.
Similarly, whether you are in a boardroom, a stock market day trader, coach an athletic team hoping to compete for a championship, or an entrepreneur entering a new market, chaos can seem like an insurmountable headwind. But if you are able to navigate chaos while others flounder you will separate yourself from the competition.
This is Part 1 in a multi-part series on Conquering Chaos. Be sure to check out subsequent newsletters that walk you through detailed understandings of VUCA, as well as the battle-tested solutions for winning consistently.
Be sure to read Part II - Volatility to continue your journey.
Be sure to purchase a copy of Jake's best-selling memoir "Once A Warrior," available here.
Jake Wood is cofounder and CEO of Team Rubicon, a nonprofit organization that utilizes the skills of military veterans to deploy disaster response teams. Under Wood’s leadership, Team Rubicon has responded to over 700 disasters since the 2010 Haiti earthquake and grown from eight to 130,000 members. Team Rubicon has been finished in the top three of the Nonprofit Times’ “Top Nonprofit To Work For in America” lists three years in a row. Wood is a leading veterans’ advocate who has briefed President Obama on veterans’ issues, met with former Presidents Bush and Clinton on disaster response and testified before the Senate. As a Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps, Wood deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan as a Scout Sniper and earned the Navy-Marine Commendation Medal. His best-selling memoir "Once A Warrior" was published in 2020.