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I wonder if when the philosopher Heraclitus said, “The only thing that is constant is change,” in c.500 BCE, he had any idea that his words would be used to sum up the zeitgeist some 2,500 years later. The quote may be familiar, but what does it actually mean in today’s workplace?
Change used to be an event, something that could be managed through well-defined change management plans each quarter. Now, it’s something that seems to happen everyday and you’ve probably noticed that organizations can’t always plan for it. What’s causing this?

Change happens because businesses are at the mercy of four forces: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity, or VUCA for short. Let me explain how each of them impacts you at work.

Volatility: The Universe’s Curve-Balls
Volatility refers to how easily external forces can change a market or situation. We are all familiar with the word volatility being tied to sharp rises and falls within the stock market in response to an item of news. The same applies to cost of goods. When grocery shopping, you may grudgingly notice the price of your favourite brand of coffee has increased. What you may not know is that the increase is due to a storm that destroyed part of the crop in the Brazilian rainforest. A new technology can destroy an industry just as easily – think of the effect that streaming video had on video rental stores. No one was sitting at Blockbuster Video wondering each day whether they would still be there a year later; it came out of the blue.
Uncertainty: Anything could happen in the next half-hour
If Volatility is a wild card where almost anything can happen, Uncertainty is not knowing which set of outcomes will happen. Let me give you a summer-themed example. Imagine you’re in the pool on vacation, kicking back on your floating lounger, sunglasses on, drink in hand, enjoying the sun. The wave machine is set to send predictable, evenly timed, same size wavesso you’re floating there just fine until you notice those wave peaks have become higher and the troughs deeper (volatility). You handle that for a while, but then, the gap between the peaks and troughs is changing; you don’t know when each wave is going to hit you. You hear someone shout to get out of the pool, but perhaps you should ride it out, you just don’t know (unpredictability). Suddenly, you’re not so relaxed.
Complexity: Let me get this straight
Thanks to globalization and technological advances it may be ‘a small world’, but it is one where Complexity abounds. Doing business across borders means a host of potential issues to navigate such as regulatory conflicts and unco-ordinated technology systems . Also, let’s not forget that the more organizations in a supply chain, the more chance there is for things to go awry. We need to resist the urge to think linearly and instead break each situation down so it is understood and then simplified.
Ambiguity: Yes. No. Maybe.
As leaders, you may want or need a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the questions you ask your direct reports. No doubt, the same is required of you. The trouble is, there could be more than one answer, and you don’t have the luxury of time to research and then give a definitive reply.  Ambiguity is inescapable in the modern workplace; instead, we need to allow people to feel safe to give their opinions, knowing that if the situation changes and the answer given is superseded, they won’t be chastized.
VUCA is now our constant; we can’t go back to how things used to be. Expecting change is the new status quo with at least one of these forces happening in your business environment on a weekly basis. Now, it’s all about adaptability and how you respond when the VUCA forces hit.
In the next article in this series, I’ll explore why companies are missing important performance measures in their tracking.
Carolyn Swora
Carolyn Swora is a workplace culture architect who facilitates development in three core areas; Courage, Resilience and Belonging. Join Carolyn in a conversation via email, LinkedIn, and Instagram. Carolyn’s book, “Rules of Engagement”, is available on Amazon. You can also listen to PWE & ME, Carolyn’s Podcast.