Leading dynamic change management in a VUCA world

change management

The term VUCA was originally used in military operations, but it’s been adapted to the business world too. It stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. Some would suggest that the term applies to every business, however that’s not completely true. It’s a popular term capturing why effective change management is so vital in today’s unpredictable climate. Broken down, it looks a little like this:

    • Volatile: Describes a situation where things can change drastically and suddenly – and not always for the best.
    • Uncertain: Here, we’re talking about situations where key information either can’t be obtained or is unreliable. A lack of clear, concise information makes it difficult to predict what may happen next.
    • Complex: Where a business has many different parts, links can’t easily be established, or it is unclear how best to proceed. Often there is a lack of clarity on how decisions are made.
    • Ambiguous: Where things can be taken a variety of different ways. A particular event could be seen very differently depending on the viewpoint.


To really condense down what we mean by VUCA, it’s all about change. The speed at which change occurs, and more importantly, how change is managed.

Success in a VUCA world – managing change

Have you ever been in the middle of a project, only to find updated information that requires you to change direction? Or maybe you’ve been leading staff through adopting an interim policy change. You know the ‘old way’ no longer works, but you’re not completely sure what the ‘new way’ is.

This is what change looks like in a VUCA world, where priorities change, information is unreliable, and results are difficult to predict. Managing change effectively is one of the most important leadership qualities you can develop. Particularly if you’re operating in a VUCA environment.

Change comes at us from all angles, whether it be reactive or proactive. Due to the uncertain nature of a VUCA world, reactive change is often the most prevalent. As a leader managing change, you can use this to your advantage.  

Not everyone is comfortable with change, and that’s why so many initiatives fall over. Many people see change as occurring just ‘for the sake of change’. Managing reactive change gives you the opportunity to clearly communicate the ‘why’, the ‘how’ and the end goal.

When people see a clear reason for change, the chance of buying in and following your leadership is enhanced.

Agile leadership and cognitive readiness

Cognitive readiness is another military term which is now commonly associated with business. It refers to the mental skills, knowledge and abilities to perform well in complex and unpredictable environments.

When you combine cognitive readiness with the more traditional skills of critical thinking (strategic, creative thinking, problem-solving and decision making), you might just have yourself an agile leader.

However, it’s often quite apparent that the critical thinkers in an organisation need more time and more precise data to make key decisions. Since these are both lacking in a VUCA world, a company needs to embrace a more agile leadership model.

Agile leaders can adapt quickly to changes and swiftly learn from mistakes. It also means being able to take staff on that journey with you. As an agile leader, you may need to reinvent the way you look at performance management.

Is a regimented, monthly coaching meeting really providing benefit to your team when they may have different KPA’s depending on the type of work they do? Bringing staff into your ‘outside of the box’ ideas is one of the best ways to instil that type of thinking in them too.

As a leader, you don’t have to be exceptionally gifted with both cognitive readiness and critical thinking skills. But you do need to know where you can leverage the talents of other leaders to achieve your outcomes.


Communication skills – the key to change management

Leadership communication is the pillar upon which successful change management is built. This means how you communicate with other leaders, and perhaps even more importantly how you communicate with staff.

The staff are the ones on the front line, helping to initiate and follow through with your change directives. If they don’t understand the reason for change, or aren’t given the information they need, things can fall over quickly.

Remember two of the key ingredients of a VUCA world are uncertainty and ambiguity. This means leadership communication needs to be at a premium. Agile leaders can learn to accept the lack of clear information, however, your communication with staff needs to be delivered with clarity and purpose.

Being involved in several projects, or projects where the goalposts change, can be unsettling for staff, and that’s where you need to be giving clear guidance and guidelines. Your communication can either empower them to succeed or set them up for failure.

And in fast-paced environments where change is the norm, don’t forget about the human side of leadership communication. People are more likely to accept a level of uncertainty when they feel respected and valued for the work they do.

Building a culture of learning

Volatile environments where priorities are constantly shifting can be daunting for both staff and leaders. But they don’t have to be. Every good leader looks for ways to embrace change and turn negatives into a positive.

Some people adapt better to change than others, but for those who struggle it can be a great learning opportunity. As leaders, it’s your job to empower staff to feel confident through change.

The term ‘learning agility’ refers to a willingness to think outside the box, take risks and quickly learn from them. In an interview with Psychology Today, Dr David Smith says that learning agility can be taught, but both leaders and staff need to feel supported to develop these skills.

Building a culture where people feel comfortable to innovate and share ideas is key to becoming a learning agile organisation.

Winning at performance management

Regular, and most of all genuine, performance management is important when working in a VUCA environment. Leaders who are highly skilled in change management know the importance of working alongside skilled and motivated staff. Regular coaching and feedback is one of the best ways to achieve both.

Coaching and performance management sessions should be frequent, but they need to be relevant. In a VUCA world, priorities are changing regularly so it isn’t enough to set people up with some KPI’s and assess them once a year.

Coaching allows you time to work with the person, not just their numbers. Focus on their learning agility skills. Give them the confidence to spread their time across different projects and become more used to managing their time.

Genuine feedback and personal coaching on change management strategies will go a long way to having staff who feel supported through the change. The result? You’ll be supported by your staff through change.

In a VUCA environment, being able to communicate with influence is going to take you a long way. Change management requires effective leadership communication. Sign up for our influence workshop, and learn how to drive bold change with influence.

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The Colin James Method® Facilitators train corporate executives to improve their leadership skills with a proven methodology. Our highly trained Facilitators and Coaches are recognised for their experience in their fields and have worked with many individuals and organisations around the world to master the art of communication.

Erica Bagshaw

Erica Bagshaw is an entrepreneur, Executive Coach and Co-Founder of The Colin James Method® and Inner Profit Pty Ltd a vibrant leadership development company in Australia. She has spent the majority of her career growing and developing close client partnerships. She loves sharing her expertise on the perfect pitch.