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5 Keys to Successful Navigation in a VUCA World

Published on Feb 5, 2019 by Phillip Sandahl

Teams Navigating VUCA World

Organizations today operate in an environment that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. They operate in a VUCA world.

The United States military coined that description to help train leaders in effective response to the challenges of modern battlefield conditions.

But those four words also aptly describe the environment in which organizations live and work every day, faced with the daunting task to compete globally in a business world that is certainly Volatile. Uncertain. Complex and Ambiguous.

The question this post attempts to answer is how to successfully navigate a team working under those conditions.

If you do an internet search you will find dozens of resources like this for more reading, almost all focused on “leadership in a VUCA world.”

It’s an important lens on the topic but the fact is, navigating successfully in a VUCA world is not just the team leader’s responsibility and the team leader can’t do it alone.

Those conditions affect every team member and the ability of the team to work together effectively. Ultimately an effective team response to those conditions is everyone’s responsibility. Our lens is the “team view”.

Before The VUCA World

teams navigating VUCA world

The starting point for this discussion is a deeper look at the nature of the world of teams today and the realization that, when it comes to a team’s ability to respond to a VUCA world of work, most teams are out-of-date, maybe decades out of date with effective options.

There was a time when the predominant conditions in which teams operated could be described as stable, predictable, simple and clear.

It wasn’t that long ago. Take a look at a photograph of teams in those days. Maybe you were on a team back then.

The pace of change was slow whether you were looking at economic, social, political or marketplace change—not to mention technology—remember?

At the team level, changes of any kind: role, responsibility, and leadership, were also slow and more easily accommodated.

The path ahead was clear. The job was well-defined. Team members had the confident expectation that the team would be together for a reasonably long time.

There was even an understanding and model for team development that could be observed using Tuckman’s four alliterative stages which we are all familiar with: forming, storming, norming and performing.

Teams were somewhere in that sequence. The issue though, is that Tuckman introduced that model in 1965.

Today's VUCA World

VUCA worldA lot has changed in more than 50 years. Teams still go through those four stages but these days, oftentimes simultaneously rather than sequentially.

To navigate in today’s VUCA world we need to understand that everything about team formation, diversity, purpose, function—all of that has changed dramatically in 50 years.

Unfortunately, our mindset has lagged behind. We are just now coming to grips with what it means to operate as a team in a world that is no longer stable, predictable, simple and clear.

In a VUCA world, every aspect of the team is impacted by those conditions. Every team muscle is stressed.

What that means at a practical, team level is that every one of the 14 factors in our TCI team effectiveness model will be affected.

  • Team Leadership as we already noted
  • The ability to manage limited Resources
  • Effective Decision-Making under pressure
  • No waiting. Be exceptionally Proactive
  • Hold Accountability with rigor, in spite of volatility
  • Adapt Goals and Strategies to moving targets
  • Maintain team Alignment in a constantly shifting environment
  • Ensure a reservoir of Trust and Respect
  • Encourage a spirit of teamwork and mutual support. Camaraderie is an oasis in stressful times
  • Communicate efficiently
  • Set a high standard for Constructive Interaction.
  • Value Diversity and inclusion
  • Maintain a sense of Optimism even when it all feels like a tight, dark, VUCA mess

So yes, clearly, all 14 of the team effectiveness factors will need attention in order for teams to navigate successfully.

Five Factors that Support Effective Navigation

For the purposes of this post we chose five in particular we believe are especially key; they provide great leverage for teams that endeavor to stay the course.

As we said, there was a time when the road ahead was clear and the map could be followed with confidence. These days it is no longer a road: we are at sea in a fog. At night.

Under those conditions, teams need navigational aids. These five factors can be waypoints that will support effective navigation.

Each one is an important light in the darkness, and together they provide a set of bearings that give the team feedback for navigating in unpredictable conditions, changing weather, shifting tides and unknown hazards. Those five factors are as follows:

  • Goals & Strategies
  • Accountability
  • Trust
  • Constructive Interaction
  • Team Leadership

Goals & Strategies

In a slower-paced world, the emphasis was on a simple but consistent structure: create a plan. Execute the plan. Maybe with an annual review.

The world of work was based on an industrial model. Create an assembly line. Use interchangeable parts. Ideally, create a consistent repeatable process.

Times have changed. When was the last time anyone asked for a five-year business plan? Five months maybe. Or five weeks.

In that world SMART goals made perfect sense. There are probably 50 variations on that acronym but they all point generally in the same direction.

Here’s one typical example: goals are Specific. Measurable. Achievable. Results-oriented. And time-bound. That template for setting goals is still useful; it’s just insufficient.

In today’s VUCA world, in addition to being SMART, teams need to achieve great AIM. They need goals that are “A” for adaptable.

In fact, great teams are thinking four or five moves ahead with options at every intersection. “Recalibrating route” is a steady companion on the road of business these days.

Goals are “I” for interconnected. The awareness that a shift in any part of the network ripples through and impacts every other point in the network is essential.

In a hierarchical structure, there is more predictability—it flows downhill. In an ecology of work, it is important to be ready for the ripple through the system.

And finally, great AIM includes goals that are “M” for motivating or meaningful. One of the core themes when it comes to successful navigation in a VUCA world is the critical importance of a sense of inspiring purpose.

We have moved from an industrial, mechanical world of pieces that fit together, to a world of relationships where a key to success is the level of engagement.

In a VUCA world there will be a premium paid for teams that are innovative and agile, with goals that are adaptable, interconnected, and motivating.


In a VUCA world, one of the obvious impacts is the shrinking cycle time—for everything. It’s as if every process for every team is iterative, with clear accountability steps built in that are more necessary than ever in order to adjust targets and process.

We are all familiar with the need for clear roles and responsibilities. And yet in spite of knowing how crucial that need for clarity is, teams too often just jump into action believing they don’t have the time, they’re moving too fast: everything is urgent. Ultimately they suffer from the resulting gaps, breakdowns and poor performance.

If teams simply handled that ordinary process for effective accountability, that would be a significant step forward.

But there are two other aspects to accountability that need to be present in a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

One of those dimensions is empowerment. In addition to having clear roles and responsibilities, team members need to be empowered.

They need to know they have the authority and support of the team. This is more than a passive and encouraging “go for it” attitude.

Empowerment includes the active support needed from others on the team. One person may have the role and the responsibility but the whole team empowers one another because the whole team is ultimately accountable.

And finally, accountability at the team level works when there is team commitment. Commitment on each team member’s part and commitment to team excellence, collaboration and results.

The team is as strong and as capable as the strength of the bonds of commitment. As team coaches, part of our role is listening at this deeper level of empowerment and commitment: it is foundational and invisible to the naked eye.

You can’t see empowerment or commitment but you can see the effect—or too often, the lack of effect.



teams in a vuca world

“Trust” on teams may be the clearest example of what separates effective teams in a VUCA world from teams that struggle or fail.

Sailing in the fog, at night, with few navigational aids and charts that might be out of date, trust in one another is a survival essential. A difference maker.

In uncertain times, under stress, the ability to trust can make all the difference. The work of teams takes place in relationship.

It’s personal. Reliability and predictability as team conditions are still key but of a different kind.

It’s not about a mechanical repeatability, like flipping a switch. It’s about the ability to rely on each other at a deeper level.

As a team member, you may not know exactly what the response to a situation might be, but you can count on your teammate to honor values and be aligned.

The result may not be what you initially anticipated, or even what turns out to be best, but the intention that determined the action was trustworthy.

Not as predictable as an automatic, default response, but reliable in relationship terms. Trust is the secret ingredient in VUCA powered teams.

It’s the glue that holds the relationships together at those times when it looks like they might fly apart.

Constructive Interaction

How do we respond when things go badly? It’s a worthy question because in a VUCA world they will go badly from time to time, maybe frequently.

It comes with the territory of volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Having a clear direction, meaningful intention, and concrete action are all important. Just as important is the ability to respond and recover.

Disagreement, disappointment, conflict, frustration, and all of the emotional accompaniment they create, are the consequences of life in today’s VUCA world.

In fact, disagreement and healthy conflict are not just normal in a VUCA world, they are key to successful team performance. T

The measure of success for teams is not how careful they are to avoid hitting the rocks, the measure of success is how quickly, courageously, and effectively they respond.

Effective conflict management for teams is a larger subject than what we will handle in this post, but here are keys based on years of working with and observing teams:


The fastest way to defuse conflict and get to a meaningful resolution is to bring it out into the light where everyone can see, discuss and negotiate.

Transparency is not necessarily a skill or value that has been rewarded in many organizations in the past, but transparency, when it is a team norm, allows teams to adjust on the fly.

Leaning In

Obviously, the opposite of holding back. Leaning in is the willingness to step up, to go first, to take responsibility and invite engagement.

And here are relationship qualities that create a team culture that excels at healthy, constructive interaction.

  • Compassion. Compassion for the struggle and the effort of others. A shared understanding of the challenges everyone on the team is working with. Assuming positive intent.
  • Willingness. For team members, the willingness to stretch outside their comfort zone, to take unfamiliar risks, to not know how best to respond and respond anyway, trusting it will lead to an effective conclusion.
  • Empathy. Believing we are all doing the best we can. On some days it will fall harder on some than others. Appreciating each other.
  • Forgiveness. Maybe this should be at the top of the list.
  • Courage. Individually and collectively.

In a world that is unsteady, where stress, rapid unexpected change is the order of the day, conflict is inevitable.

Great teams learn how to turn the inherent energy in conflict into energy for building together.

Team Leadership

Yes, the role of team leader is important and it carries unique responsibilities. But what we know about teams is that leadership is not just reserved for the person with that title in the functional role.

Leadership is everyone’s responsibility as leadership is called for within the team. That is especially true as we consider the conditions of work in a VUCA world.

In the TCI Team Diagnostic model, “Team Leadership” sits on the Productivity side of the model as a Team Performance Indicator that is necessary to get the job done.

That’s still true but there is a way Team Leadership can be seen as the hinge that connects Productivity and Positivity.

On the Positivity side of the model, we are looking at those qualities that create effective collaboration; it’s the relationship dimension that describes the conditions needed in order for teams to work together effectively, especially under challenging conditions.

In a VUCA world teams can’t afford to be idle at moments of crisis, waiting for a leader to show up. Showing up is everyone’s responsibility.

When we talk to teams about their most outstanding successes, in the course of telling the stories they will inevitably point to individual contributions and each of those examples is an example of leadership in action on behalf of the team.

Not every day in a VUCA world is a day of harrowing storms, although it can feel that way sometimes.

But on those days when it is, great teams are prepared and willing to empower leadership as needed for the success of the team. They also practice that empowering leadership on the days the weather is not so harrowing.


We started with this observation: there was a time when the predominant conditions in which teams operated could be described as stable, predictable, simple and clear.

The pace of change was slow whether you were looking at technical, economic, social, political or marketplace change. Then someone stepped on the accelerator. And turned out the lights.

Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. Those are the conditions in which teams operate today. The key to team success will be the ability to manage successfully under those conditions.

The five factors we highlighted from the TCI Team Diagnostic model are key waypoints for navigating that VUCA world.

Success for teams will require agility, resolve, flexibility and responsiveness. And perhaps most of all an ability to recover quickly when life is challenging and things don’t go according to plan, because they won’t.

There are new competencies to develop, new agreements to be made, commitment to values and alignment on how to respond—all part of a new mindset that meets the demanding conditions of that VUCA world.

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