Invasion of the VUCAns

by Kathy F. Bernhard


What, another generation of Star Trek extraterrestrial humanoids to contend with?

Mercifully, no.  Look carefully, and you’ll see we’re not talking about Star Trek Vulcans; rather it is a real life, non-fiction uber-challenging force facing all of our organizations, the advent of the VUCA world.

While a fair amount has been written on this topic, the term VUCA is relatively new, having been coined by the military in the 1990s.  Not quite yet a household term, most of us recognize and work every day under the conditions it describes: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.  The business world has always been punctuated by some periods marked by conditions like these; the difference is that the VUCA world seems to have become a steady state.  In the past, we have had the luxury of sprinting through VUCA periods and then getting some respite.  More recently, perhaps when we weren’t looking, that sprint morphed into a requirement for a marathon.

And therein lays the challenge.  Most of us can rise to the occasion and deal with the stress and challenge presented by VUCA conditions on a temporary basis.  Some even find it exhilarating in the short run.  Trying to maintain our effectiveness and even our equilibrium in the face of relentless VUCA conditions is an entirely different race.

In his book, “The Pause Principle,” Kevin Cashman offers a somewhat counter-intuitive strategy for coping with VUCA, best summarized as “needing to go slow to go fast.”  Cashman persuasively argues that those who cope most successfully in the VUCA world will be those who pause to reflect and also to ask the right questions.  “Pausing is a methodology for proactively navigating toward openings, and a capacity for turning uncertainty and volatility to an advantage…an opening for something new to emerge.”1

Cashman further illustrates with the following “Pause Principle Model,” measuring the amount of pause or relfection on one axis against the degree of complexity on the other:2


In my own coaching and leadership development work, I use Cashman’s  model to emphasize the importance of being able to deftly shift between the “Transactive” and “Transformative” modes depending on the degree of complexity. All too often, what I find is leaders spending excessive time in the “Hyperactive” or “Hypoactive” quadrants, pausing too  little or too much,  The core questions for us and our teams are whether we are spending enough time in the “Transformative” quadrant or too much time in the “Hyperactive” or “Hypoactive” quadrants.  Are we delegating enough of the “Transactive” work to those at lower levels, so that we know that we are not only productive, but productive on the right things?  If we are really honest, most of us will own up to spending too much time  in the Hyperactive quadrant, having been conditioned that “faster is better,” no matter what.  Faster may have been better when we were sprinting through VUCA periods, but surely no longer so for the VUCA marathon we now face.My observation from my own work with leaders is that encouraging them to slow down to pause and reflect is a hard sell.  Particularly among the more experienced leaders, it seems to go against the grain, as though the suggestion to slow down means taking oneself out of the race.These are often folks who have gotten where they are through a hard charging, drive “on all the time” style.  Not only is that not the best fit style for the VUCA world, it is like not even a sustainable style for many as they enter the later stages of their careers.

A useful technique I learned from my colleague Catherine McCarthy is to simply have leaders identify which quadrant(s) they find themselves in most often and ask themselves “is it serving me well?”  In many cases, the answer will be no, and some shifting will be in order.  This is especially true for leaders charged with driving innovation.  True innovation is more likely to occur in the “Transformative” quadrant (high complexity with high reflection), where it has more of a chance to emerge.  So often we deal with highly complex issues with insufficient reflection (“Hyperactive” quadrant), missing opportunities for innovation and missing important nuances as well. The result is that we put Band-Aids on symptoms, without digging for root causes that can lead to true innovation when remedied.  Making the connection between reflecting/pausing and innovation is one way to answer the ever-popular question “what’s in it for me?” and provide leaders with more incentive to deal with the discomfort of changing behavior.

Going slow to go fast is a new and different paradigm for many of us and it is up to us as leaders to role model the requisite new behaviors for our teams.  Successful athletes often practice interval training, spurts of high exertion followed by periods of recovery.  In order to lead teams who will prevail in the VUCA marathon, we would do well to translate this concept into organizations and our daily business lives.

Can’t you just hear the coach’s admonition to to team?  “Read, set, pause…”  Not a far-fetched idea at all.

Kathy F. Bernhard is a Senior Consultant for The Leadership Development Group. For further information, please contact

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