Finding simplicity in chaos: Beyond VUCA
People Matters|May 2020
The concept of VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) is no longer adequate as a framework for evaluating the world: perhaps it never was. Let us instead set it aside, and look at a more constructive, useful alternative: human systems dynamics
Glenda Eoyang and Michael Jenkins

Volatile. Uncertain. Complex. Ambiguous. VUCA. Some leadership pundits recommend that we use this term for anything we don’t understand or cannot control. The problem is that the tumultuous events in our world, and the concomitant domino-effects we are experiencing, have completely outgrown that label. In fact, VUCA as a handy acronym has had its day. When we invoke VUCA to explain how things are changing, we risk missing the depth and breadth of the current reality. We excuse ourselves for inaction and passivity. Paradoxically, the term might even obfuscate and confuse our ability to make sense of what’s going on right now. We need a more thoughtful way of making sense of our emerging chaos and uncertainty. In short, we need to understand our worlds and ourselves as complex adaptive systems.

Why not VUCA?

VUCA is problematic as a framework for a number of reasons.

First, the terms underpinning VUCA originated at the end of the Cold War. Coined initially by the US Army War College, they were used to describe the new global order that was emerging at the time. It was an attempt to paint a picture of how the United States saw the world in the immediate post-Cold War period. From the Western military point of view, that picture was indeed volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. It was the 9/11 terrorist attacks that enabled the acronym itself – VUCA – to gain currency. Not long after, the term was appropriated by leadership scholars and practitioners. They used it to describe what they perceived as a business environment characterized by turbulence, the unknown, and the uncontrollable. The term, and the models and tools it spawned, were a convenient way to package everything that was unfamiliar and disturbing. The label allowed people to refer to the complex reality without doing the hard work that would be necessary to figure out what they could know and might reasonably do about what was going on.

Second, VUCA owes its genesis to the American perception of a situation. That means events elsewhere in the world were somehow not very VUCA. It implied that the societal upheavals and ruptures going on in other parts of the world were not significant, but rather things that were just going on in other people’s lives and in other countries. For example, the late ‘50s marked the start of what Mao Zedong called the “Great Leap Forward.” That initiative was aimed at an exponential, social, and economic leapfrogging which led – estimates vary – to between 19 and 45 million people dying of starvation. Many historians take the view that this disaster cost more lives than those lost in Russia under Stalin (20 million or more). It was something that was happening far away from the United States. For the people who suffered and died, any attempt to characterize their experience as simply VUCAlike would be a grave injustice to those who endured an existence that was in reality, a brutally enforced normality. For as long as it lasted, the Great Leap Forward was the reality of life for millions of Chinese people.

Third, and this is where VUCA is truly problematic and no longer fit-for-purpose: VUCA does not adequately apply to societies where volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity are normal aspects of the world. VUCA does not fit as a descriptor if you have grown up in Haiti, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, or Yemen. It doesn’t fit because VUCA is an attempt to describe a deviation from an imagined stable, certain, simple, and clear norm. It is a redundant term because it is culturally biased and takes the perspective of the West and of Western experience as its determinant and starting point.

So, for these three main reasons, VUCA has truly passed its sell-by date. And while we’re here, we would like to make a plea for everyone to think carefully about VUCA’s cousins: “New Normal” and “FutureProofing.” “New Normal” in its crudest form asks people to accept emerging exceptional or horrendous circumstances and move on with their lives. If we’re not careful with the term, we run the risk of denying ourselves the opportunity to interrogate why we’re in such a situation in the first place. “Future-Proofing” is even more extreme. It is an oxymoron. The future is uncertain, and uncertainty carries risk. Any notion that the future can be made riskfree is a delusion of power and privilege.

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