Choose Your VUCA

New Rule: Choose Your VUCA

I first found the term ‘VUCA’ in a book titled, Get There Early (2007), by Bob Johansen. He foreshadowed the changes going on in society. As with all changes, conflict between the old and the new can create tension. Another way to view this is there are many possible positive changes that can be developed.

Of course, this requires new thinking with new lenses and reframing threat as an opportunity. Education is no exception from the changes evident in business, government, and world relationships. The left side of VUCA (see the graphic downloaded from google images) stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.

Think about our world of education. The frenetic pace in schools keeps us busy, overloaded, and fragmented. We are busy with what others think is urgent. Yes, safety is urgent and important. However, does a parking permit overrule an observation of a teacher? Yes, that happened to me. I am reminded of Ernest Hemingway’s quote: Never mistake motion for action. When motion rules, we hardly get anything important done.

Irrespective of the causes, there is physical and emotional volatility, e.g. whether or not public schools are the way of the future or private and charter schools are the best. Hmmmm, maybe this is a both/and solution. Yes, we can debate funding, etc. As I said in an earlier post, quit whining, take action to make it better. If you are in a public school like I was, create and compete. Emotional responses to culture and diversity can cause volatility. That is why addressing these issues is so important rather than placation or ignoring important issues.

Technology, administrative structures, testing, etc. continue to cause more uncertainty. Waiting for state funding decisions, legislatures to finish state budgets, forces school to deal with uncertain funding streams and time pressures making it difficult to plan more effectively to any changes. New standards and political changes also cause higher levels of uncertainty which school systems have to respond to in a timely manner.

With an increased number of stakeholders, complexity abounds. Common Core is being tried to bring more focus to our curriculum to help students get ready for life learning. However, with almost fifteen thousand school systems, under the direction of fifty states, and a U.S. Department of Education directing new initiatives causes increased complexity. Adding to the complexity is the business community looking for talented youth to hire for a continually changing climate. Foreign countries are supplying a workforce that we seem unable to produce in the numbers we need.

I am for ‘back to the basics.’ Tell me what the basics for 2030 and I am your guy. The fact is we don’t know what skills will be the required in 2030. Students, who will be trying to satisfy business and government needs, are in our school right now. So, my question is: how do we prepare students for a world that we have no clue about. I do know one thing; our children better be prepared to learn and continue learning. To quote Marshall Goldsmith, ‘what got you here, won’t get you there.’

OK, are you depressed? Do you want to go back to bed and pull the covers up over your head? The Ostrich Approach to problem-solving is probably not the best strategy. How do we respond? Solve short-term problems, keep an eye on the future, and keep the right side of the graphic in mind.

I know the term ‘vision’ has been overused and some have a negative reaction to it. At the same time, if you don’t know what you want and can’t define the goal, your chance of getting there diminishes. I think I remember a quote or a book, if you don’t know where you are going, any road will do. I ask participants in coaching workshops to track how much time do people tell you what they don’t want. Your challenge, in being a good colleague, leader or coach, is helping people define what they want. Once you decide what they want, then focus on how to get there.

I also want to promote the idea that values help create the vision. I have referred to the work of Stan Slap and Ray Dalio on values. I still highly recommend those resources. A vision that is aligned with your values can create focus, energy, and pathways emerge. The impact on the organization can be amazing.

Understanding is the next part on the right side of VUCA. Ask questions more than making judgments. How did we get here? I like Jerry Sternin’s work on Positive Deviance. There are systems that are being successful with the same kinds of kids you are dealing with. Ask the questions that Jerry suggests finding out what works rather than whining or spending time on what is not working.

Be intellectually curious. This is one of the most important talents of the best performers. If you want to stay with the status quo, enjoy the short-term ride. It may not last too long. I like Eric Hoffer’s quote: “In a world of change, the learners shall inherit the earth, while the learned shall find themselves perfectly suited for a world that no longer exists.”

From my coaching over the years I have learned that the clearer the client/learner/performer is about what they want, you increase their ability to get there. Asking questions to clarify where you want to be, how you will get there, and what will be the evidence you are approaching your goal will go a long way in making positive progress. Ask More, Tell Less. I learn every time I interact with students. (I am substitute teaching, yikes). They keep me flexible and are full of curiosity. It is not easy. One goal for me is engaging students in questioning, learning, and successfully solving problems.

One strategy I have found extremely valuable, in most situations, is getting clear about the issue. If you can’t define the problem, you can’t solve it. I learned a skill from Genie Z. LaBorde (1983) in her book Influencing with Integrity and my early work with Cognitive Coaching. The process is getting specific with our language.
We use fuzzy nouns and verbs, like ‘students won’t do the work.’ Which students and what work? Everyone seems to talk about ‘quality education.’ What is that? What is your definition of quality education?

Sometimes we act according to rules, e.g. ‘I could never teach a synectics lesson.’ Who made that rule? What would happen if you did? We sometimes over generalize. Everybody has one. You never let me. Everybody? Everybody in the whole school. Can you think of anybody who doesn’t have one?

And my favorite, ‘we use best practice.’ Best compared to what? What do we do with the students who don’t learn from best practice? Can’t we come up with additional teaching practices that help students who don’t learn from best practice? In case you are wondering, the answer is YES!

The final part of VUCA is agility. I strongly suggest the book by Susan David (2017) Emotional Agility. I don’t care whether you call it flexibility, creativity, or agility. The Einstein quote seems to always be appropriate. “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Whatever the repertoire you have, it is not enough. Add to your skillset constantly. The bad news, there is no end in your own learning. The good news is it is your responsibility and you can do something about it.

A couple of references

Dalio, Ray. (2017). Principles. New York: Simon & Schuster.

David, Susan. (2016). Emotional Agility. New York: Penguin

Goldsmith, M. (2007). What got you here won’t get you there. New York: Hyperion

Johansen, Bob. (2007). Get There Early. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.

LaBorde, G. (1983). Influencing with integrity. Palo Alto: Syntony Publishing.

Leading Teams through Change at the Speed of Business 2015-05-11,

Slap, Stan. (2010). Bury My Heart at Conference Room B. New York: Penguin.


Shift Happens. If you don't adopt New Rules, drop the "f" in Shift!