VUCA: is managing chaos our new normal? Can we rise to the challenge of new realities we crashed into it with the pandemic? Is thriving in a world full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, even possible?
Life is VUCA
VUCA, a term originating in leadership theories of Bennis and Nanus and popularized by the US military around the year 2000 to describe the new realities at the time, stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. Today life is VUCA, in all its aspects. From wearing masks and vaccines to working from home and severe burnout, from climate crisis to social unrest, recent examples of rapid, unpredictable, frequent, and significant change have made it difficult to prepare, problem-solve, and make decisions without having to compromise. Many pre-existing problems have been exacerbated, and as we have put off dealing with them, we are now returning to having to make more decisions than ever.
“Problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.”
The pressure of rapid decision making and the need for constant optimizing continue to put incredible demands on our and attention, often leading to burnout. We are told that uncertainty creates cognitive overload, and the associated stress can be harmful to our health. Throughout the pandemic, no one was sure what stage we were in, or how to feel about it, and managing high levels of volatility and ambiguity has put us into a different mindset. If we are to thrive in this VUCA environment, we must learn to love change, master the paradox, and become extremely flexible, agile, and resilient.
Post-pandemic resilience is about taking a “yes and” stance to a life full of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. As we accept our ever-changing circumstances, we must at the same time focus our energy on creating alternate options to restore our sense of agency. This different lens can provide us with much-needed relief from the feeling of overwhelm. As uncertainty and volatility continue, flexibility will remain key to thriving in today’s VUCA world. True resilience, after all, is about more than just being able to bounce back, it implies that we emerge stronger because of the experience.
Flow, the most adaptive response to VUCA world
One sound approach to cultivating resilience and responding constructively to the chaos created by VUCA conditions points to the cultivation of the mental state of Flow. In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi explains that in Flow we operate at our best, we are challenged to the top of our skillset, but in the end, emerge stronger as a result of the experience. Because Flow is a complex psychic event that mobilizes all our cognitive, technical, and performance skills in whatever domain we operate, we become so engaged in the problem and the task at hand that we can sense the slightest imbalance in our environment, a crucial skill in VUCA world.
“In Flow, a person is challenged to do her best and must constantly improve her skills.” – Prof. Csikszentmihalyi
Flow pulls us out of fear and worries about an uncertain future because it demands that we focus our attention on what we need to solve for and engage with right now. When we work on controlling our attention in this way, we feel like we have more control over our lives. Flow could become an effective coping strategy when feeling overwhelmed by ambiguity because the conditions necessary to experience flow include a sense of control. The eight conditions necessary for the experience of Flow, and at the same time valuable resources for thriving in VUCA reality, include intrinsic motivation, clarity of goals, sense of control, frequent feedback, the balance between challenge and skills, focused attention, and finally merging of action and awareness that leads to loss of self-consciousness and altered perception of time.
Mental stress in the Covid age
Flow as a solution for thriving in the VUCA world has the potential to inoculate us against inevitable setbacks. Pandemic has given us a lot of valuable research that showed the effectiveness of cultivating flow under challenging circumstances. While many studies set out to measure the detrimental effects of isolation and uncertainty on mental and emotional health others chose to focus on the solutions that can help prevent this decline. Despite reports showing that rates of depression and anxiety symptoms have doubled and even quadrupled in some locations across the globe since 2019, it would be fair to say that focusing only on correcting the problem is a luxury we cannot afford in 2021.
Sweeny and colleagues found that meaningful activities, particularly those that generated Flow states, were far more predictive of greater resilience to stress caused by the pandemic. Participants who reported frequently engaging in Flow-inducing activities showed little or no decline in wellbeing because Flow appeared to moderate the link between quarantine length and well-being.
If experiencing Flow could protect individuals from the potentially detrimental effects of isolation, what are its implications for the post-pandemic world? More than forty years of psychological research into the mental state of Flow has frequently associated this one-of-a-kind experience with wellbeing, improved mental health, and life satisfaction because it allows us to transform stress into something positive.
Flow is the ultimate eustress experience
Not all stress is experienced as harmful and not all stress makes for a negative experience. Cultivating Flow brings on a sense of satisfaction when raising challenges because the state of Flow embodies a positive response to stress also known as eustress. When we are fully present and focused on the task at hand, away from being caught up by our internal states, eustress brings on the feeling of exhilaration. Øystein Saksvik, in his literature review on constructive stress, argues not only that good stress is necessary for performance, both on the individual and on the collective level, but also that stress, in general, must be present in our lives as a motivator. The key is to:
- understand the difference between stress that is destructive versus constructive
- be able to live with both (because we need challenges and counterforces to progress, master hardships and to develop perseverance), and
- learn to shift one’s perspective from a negative to a positive, both as an individual as well as within an organization.
The making of meaning
How we respond to challenges and stress makes all the difference. Dr. Kelly McGonigal of Stanford University argues that people are less motivated by trying to avoid stress than harnessing it toward meaningful ends and seeing stress as an opportunity to rise to the occasion. Flow teaches us to get comfortable conquering challenges, big and small.
Most effective and widely available forms of promoting Flow are visible in those work environments that provide opportunities for enjoyment that comes from doing one’s best, “environments with a soul where work can be Flow” as Csikszentmihalyi describes in his 2004 book entitled Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning. Our organizations shape our identities. Systems that tend toward complexity and enterprises that allow for continuous learning provide their members with work that matters for people, work that counts, and work where people care about each other. As Cal Newport explains:
“Burnout is not caused by too much work but instead by too little work that is meaningful.” – Cal Newport
What better way to cultivate Flow than to become an expert in Flow-driven leadership? The best way to learn about Flow and develop skills necessary to combat the obstacles created by VUCA can be found in experiential learning programs that focus specifically on ways to promote Flow and develop VUCA-world competencies of embracing and balancing risk, experimentation, self-awareness, ability to learn on the fly, and ruthless prioritization.
How to promote flow and VUCA-world competencies
On the individual level, effective experiential learning is about extracting learning from every experience and requires that participants maintain a bias toward learning in face of pressure and reflect on the experience throughout. The most effective training environments to the VUCA challenges of today are business simulations that are large-scale and highly realistic, where all interactions are recorded, and results are reviewed with trained experts, ideally in a blended learning setup. Business simulations allow leaders and emerging leaders to practice decision-making in unusual, difficult, and complex situations.
Unlike in our VUCA reality, in a good business simulation, we can experiment and fail safely. Virtual leadership simulation games like FLIGBY allow us to practice dealing with emergencies and major decisions in a low-stress virtual environment until we acquire all the competencies that make a good leader through identifying, assessing, and mitigating risk. They also provide individualized feedback on leadership skills that are relevant to VUCA reality. One such tool is the VUCA report generated by the FLIGBY 2.0 that addresses competencies we must develop to thrive on chaos characteristic of today’s organizational climate. If you’re interested in learning more about how to effectively assess VUCA skills read our next article titled “Is Your Organization VUCA-ready?”
Cultivating the mental state of Flow for the purpose of inoculating us against the adverse effects of prolonged stress allows us to address the problem while cultivating the positive and life-giving. Transforming work and more of everyday activities into more Flow-like experiences has, in the words of professor Csikszentmihalyi, the potential of making every day more rich, intense, and meaningful, and any act more rewarding. Promoting Flow can help industries and individuals thrive, lead with more confidence, and succeed even in uncertain times.
- Bailon, C., Goicoechea, C., Banos, O., Damas, M., Pomares, H., Correa, A., … & Perakakis, P. (2020). CoVidAffect, real-time monitoring of mood variations following the COVID-19 outbreak in Spain. Scientific Data, 7(1), 1-10.
- Bennis, W., & Nanus, B. (1985). The strategies for taking charge. Leaders, New York: Harper. Row, 41.
- Colvin, G. (2016). Humans are underrated: What high achievers know that brilliant machines never will. Penguin.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1975). Beyond boredom and anxiety: The experience of play in work and games. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper & Row.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2004). Good Business: Leadership, Flow, and the Making of Meaning. New York, NY: Penguin.
- Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2020). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. Hachette UK.
- Marer, P., Buzady, Z. & Vecsey, Z. (2017). Missing Link Discovered. ALEAS Sims Hungary-USA (Publisher)
- Newport, C. (2016). Deep work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world. Hachette UK.
- Peters, T. J., & Peters, T. (1987). (p. 561). New York: Knopf.
- Peters, A., McEwen, B. S., & Friston, K. (2017). Uncertainty and stress: Why it causes diseases and how it is mastered by the brain. Progress in neurobiology, 156, 164-188.
- Saksvik, P. Ø. (2017). Constructive Stress. In The Positive Side of Occupational Health Psychology (pp. 91-98). Springer, Cham.
- Sweeny, K., Rankin, K., Cheng, X., Hou, L., Long, F., Meng, Y., … & Zhang, W. (2020). Flow in the Time of COVID-19: Findings from China.
- Stiehm, Judith Hicks; Nicholas W. Townsend (2002). The U.S. Army War College: Military Education in a Democracy. Temple University Press. p.6.
- Vahratian A, Blumberg SJ, Terlizzi EP, Schiller JS. Symptoms of Anxiety or Depressive Disorder and Use of Mental Health Care Among Adults During the COVID-19 Pandemic – United States, August 2020-February 2021. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2021 Apr 2;70(13):490-494. doi: 10.15585/mmwr.mm7013e2. PMID: 33793459; PMCID: PMC8022876.