5 Keys to Successful Navigation in a VUCA World

By Phillip Sandahl

Teams Navigating VUCA World

The world we live and work in is increasingly a world that can be easily described as volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. As an acronym, a VUCA World.

The US military coined that terminology to help train leaders in effective response to modern battlefield conditions.

But those four words also aptly describe the environment in which organizations do business every day.

A quick internet search of “VUCA” will yield dozens of articles on the topic like this—almost all focused on “leadership in a VUCA World.”

That’s certainly an important lens for the topic but the fact is, navigating successfully in a VUCA World is not just the team leader’s responsibility.

Those conditions affect every team member and the ability of the team to work together effectively.

Ultimately every team member plays a role; effective response to those conditions is everyone’s responsibility.

It occurred to me that it was time to look at the subject from the “team view”. That is, after all, our special area of expertise.

Before we get to navigating in that world, it’s worthwhile setting the context, especially the historical context for teams.

Back Then

Before The VUCA World

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

We’ll skip the acronym, SPSC because without any vowels it makes a wretched sound, but the words accurately describe organization life for most teams.

The pace of change was slow whether you were looking at economic, social, political or marketplace change.

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

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

Team development could be observed and monitored using Dr. Bruce Tuckman’s four alliterative stages we are all familiar with: forming, storming, norming and performing.

The issue though, is that Tuckman introduced that model in 1965. A lot has changed in 50 years.

Today’s VUCA World

Today's VUCA world

Today, for example, there’s more computing power in your average fitness watch than a roomful of computers with refrigerator-sized disc drives from the 60’s.

Autonomous driving cars and flying taxis was a cartoon and most of what we take for granted in everyday lifestyle was science fiction back then.

Teams still go through those four familiar stages, but these days, more often simultaneously rather than sequentially.

The issue is that the world of teams has changed dramatically in 50 years, but our mindset has not.

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.

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.

5 Keys to Navigating in a VUCA World

Navigating The VUCA World

The TCI team effectiveness model provides one way for a team to get its bearings and chart a course ahead. The model includes seven Productivity factors and seven Positivity factors.

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Productivity Factors: necessary to get the job done, be productive.

Positivity Factors: necessary for working together collaboratively.

Obviously, all 14 factors are important competencies for teams working in a world which is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

I chose five that I think have the most potential to help teams respond more effectively to the VUCA World.

You might choose a different five. In the end, although they are each distinct, they are also interrelated so building competency in any one of the 14 will have a ripple effect on others.

Not in any particular order, here are the five I chose:

Goals and Strategies
Constructive Interaction
Team Leadership

Goals and Strategies

VUCA World Goals and Stategies

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

The world of work was based on an industrial model. The work starts “here”, progresses through these steps, and is completed “here”. Create a consistent repeatable process.

In that world SMART goals made perfect sense. There are probably 50 variations on that acronym, but basically, 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 great AIM. They need goals that are Adaptable.

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

Teams understand that goals are Interconnected. Teams are keenly aware that a shift in any part of the network impacts every other point in the network.

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

Finally, great “aim” includes goals that are Motivating or Meaningful. One of the core themes when it comes to successful navigation in a VUCA World is the critical importance of underlying values.

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


VUCA World Accountability

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 a clear accountability step built in that is necessary in order to adjust targets and process.

Clear roles and responsibilities are critical for team accountability.

But in the VUCA World, that’s not enough. There are two other aspects to accountability that need to be present. One of those is empowerment.

In addition to having clear roles and responsibilities team members need to be empowered: know that 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. Individual accountability is important of course, but high performing teams hold one another accountable.

Not in a nagging way, but from a commitment of true mutual support on behalf of the team’s success.


VUCA World Trust

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.

The level of trust on teams will be in direct proportion to the level of safety team members feel.

One of the keys to building trust is to create opportunities for team members to build stronger interpersonal relationships—get to know each other beyond the title or function and engage with another human being.

A lack of trust on teams and the consequences created as a result are the reason so many teams seek team coaching.

They experience the struggle, the emotional price, and typically the lack of business performance, and attribute much of that dysfunction to a lack of trust.

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.

You might wonder, when it comes to trust, how are teams doing?

Here’s what our data shows*:

For all teams in the data base, an average score of 6.0 out of 9. For teams that our model describes as both High Productivity and High Positivity, the result for those teams is 7.4.

The average score for teams at the other end of the spectrum—Low Productivity / Low Positivity teams is just 4.6.

There is an enormous difference in score from top teams to bottom and it shows in business results.

For Low/Low teams, trust ranks number 13 out of 14 factors. If you were curious about the lowest factor of the 14, here it is.

Constructive Interaction

VUCA World Constructive Interaction

The question for teams is, “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.

Things will definitely not go as planned. It comes with the territory of volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

Disagreement, disappointment, conflict, frustration—and all of the emotional accompaniment they create—those are the consequences for 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.

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

Here are keys to effective conflict management for teams in order to move from disruption to progress.


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.

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

The key is making it a team norm, and that is one area a team coach can be supportive.

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.

Relationship Qualities

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

Compassion: Not necessarily the first place team members go when things go badly. What’s the usual, knee-jerk default? Blame is automatic. To shift to a more compassionate culture will take awareness that “we are in this together”.

Willingness: The willingness to stretch outside my comfort zone, to take unfamiliar risks, to not know how best to respond and respond anyway, trusting it will lead to an effective conclusion. Not waiting.

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

VUCA World 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 a functional role; it is everyone’s responsibility as leadership is called for in the team. 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.

If we interview teams about their most outstanding successes, in the course of telling the stories they will point to individual contributions and each of those 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.


VUCA World Waypoints

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.

We looked at five team performance indicators from the TCI team effectiveness model as important waypoints for navigating that VUCA World.

Within each of the five, we could see consistent themes—that success, more than anything depends on relationship and an underlying foundation of alignment and mutual support.

Success in VUCA World 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.

It’s quite rare for teams to achieve those qualities without conscious attention on reinforcing behavior change, practicing ways of working together that build the muscles for navigating in this VUCA World.

There is clearly a valuable role for team coaching in supporting teams to develop those skills over time.

*TCI data from more than 3,000 teams worldwide using the TCI Team Diagnostic™ assessment 2008-2017

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