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Working La Vida VUCA

By Mark Guterman and Dan King

Living in a VUCA World imageExploding onto the music stage in 1999, Ricky Martin paved the way for hundreds of Latin pop stars to follow. His song, Livin’ La Vida Loca, became a catalyst in bringing Latin pop to the forefront of the American music scene. He topped the Billboard charts, earned several Grammy nominations, and influenced millions of Americans to step beyond the conventional boundaries of rock and pop music.

Translated to English, Livin’ La Vida Loca means “Living the Crazy Life,” a fitting metaphor for the uncertainty, volatility and ambiguity of our worklives today. Ask anyone how things are going at work and inevitably you’ll hear “it’s crazy.”

What’s lacking is a vision of where we’re going and what comes next. We need a catalyst. Bob Johansen, of the Institute for the Future, has referenced the term, VUCA, to describe our current and future state of work. It’s an acronym for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Derived from military vocabulary, the particular meaning and relevance of VUCA relates to how people view the conditions under which they make decisions, plan forward, manage risks, foster change and solve problems. The components are:

  • Volatility: The nature and dynamics of change today — and the constancy and speed of change-forces.
  • Uncertainty: The lack of predictability, the prospects for surprise, and the sense of awareness and understanding of issues and events.
  • Complexity: The multiplex of forces, the confounding of issues and the chaos and confusion that surround work and workplaces.
  • Ambiguity: The haziness of reality, the potential for misreads, and the mixed meanings of conditions leading to cause-and-effect confusion.

In short, we are moving from a world of “problems,” which demand speed, analysis and elimination of uncertainty to solve – to a world of “dilemmas,” which demand patience, sense-making and an engagement with uncertainty. And we’re not just experiencing a temporary period of uncertainty; it’s a permanent condition. Applied to our careers, it demands a shift away from an approach to “career problem-solving” to one of continually “creating meaningful work.”

For individuals navigating unfamiliar channels in search of professional fulfillment, this venture may seem overwhelming and daunting, leading many to wonder how to keep up in a work world that appears beyond our control and extremely non-rational, to boot. Whether meaningfully employed or struggling to find any kind of work, increasing numbers of people are feeling more anxious about future prospects and are worried about how they can possibly keep pace. The “VUCA” world leaves us feeling “LOCA” much of the time.

The premises of VUCA command a combination of foresight (attention to the outer world), insight (attention to your own inner drives) and action (a melding of the two) – along with a continual reassessment and realignment to mirror constantly changing social and economic conditions. Our model for Meaningful Careers can help reframe VUCA in a way that that puts things in a more manageable context and offers an ongoing strategy to prepare for what comes next. Here’s what needed:

  • Values: Knowledge of what you stand for and what matters most to you. The insight to articulate for yourself and others how and where you align with current and future opportunities.
  • Uniqueness: Knowledge of your “value proposition” and how your experience, education, strengths and passion combine to create a one-of-a-kind “brilliance” that you can leverage now and into the future.
  • Confidence: Ability to express optimism about the future (there are plenty of pessimists already). A positive outlook in how you tell your story, how you deal with adversity, and how you take steady and disciplined action toward your goals.
  • Agility: Capacity to foresee and adapt to changes in the environment, to transform attitudes and behaviors, and to maintain perspective about the constantly changing future.

Each one our VUCA characteristics is important for what it is, but they all need to be practiced regularly if there is to be any meaning and security in the months and years ahead. We have to sense the future in order to compete in the present.

Just as Ricky Martin transformed attitudes and behaviors by traversing an unknown future for pop music, we too must exhibit the foresight, insight and action to traverse the emerging world of work. It’s time to start “Workin’ La Vida VUCA”.


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