Modern leadership – resilience in a VUCA world

18.12.2019 – Gabriela Keller


Expert article for Computerworld from 18 December 2019

The world of work is becoming more and more dynamic, with volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) on the rise. Question marks hang over tried-and-trusted business models and traditional leadership structures. So what types of organisation are likely to succeed in a VUCA world?

The term VUCA was coined to describe the new conditions prevailing in a multilateral world following the end of the Cold War. VUCA has similarly been spreading like wildfire through the world of modern business and is used to describe extreme conditions and situations.

The four concepts underlying VUCA sum up developments seen over recent years and those to come in the near future: disruptive technologies, digital transformation, precarious markets, economic disputes, refugee migrations and climate change. Few concrete predictions can be made, whilst new modes of corporate management must be found to achieve speed, agility and success in today’s world.

VUCA defines the parameters of modern corporate leadership and presents familiar management principles and traditional models of planning, control and hierarchy with fresh challenges. The companies and managers of the future will have to learn how to succeed within complex systems and create the conditions required to make this possible.

Agile organisation thanks to autonomous teams

The most efficient form of corporate development allows all those involved to have an active and independent say. By enabling teams to behave autonomously, and encouraging a high degree of personal responsibility, companies can respond flexibility and efficiently when dealing with the complex challenges of digital transformation.

An autonomous team is a group of five to 20 specialists that takes responsibility for a portfolio of projects or tasks within a specific discipline. Expertise, trust and cohesion are developed on an ongoing basis within the team and lay the foundations for successful engagement with the team’s functions, which will constantly change due to the momentum of digitalisation.

High levels of autonomy in technological decision-making are crucial for digitalisation projects in particular; such freedom allows for finely calculated experimentation and enhances the experience amassed by staff, thus boosting the company’s potential for innovation. Not giving up until the problem at hand has been solved in the best possible manner becomes the default option and galvanises ambition. This, in turn, encourages greater identification with the firm and has a positive impact on staff satisfaction and retention.

Autonomous teams organise their own structures and bundle capacity, and leverage their own abilities for optimal self-guidance in developing new avenues, solutions and viable strategies. In such endeavours, trusting well-established collaboration between equals is an important anchor point for working together to master demanding challenges. Team leaders are charged with defining group processes and take responsibility for structural and directive management to ensure the team is able to react to changes in the market in a rapid, agile and targeted fashion. Teams ultimately consist of multiple, autonomously organised units with flat hierarchies that work together to pursue a set of overarching goals. Such teams will become valuable assets for the company.

Stable and diverse, yet dynamic

As teamwork is crucial in the modern workplace, the professional configuration of project groups is becoming ever more important. Increasingly, staff with very different profiles are working together, and a broad spectrum of contrasting strengths, personalities, ideas and perspectives are brought into play in what have become known as “diverse teams”. Ideally, the team members will complement one another with their wide range of experience, extensive knowledge and distinct perspectives in order to devise creative solutions – when a new product is to be launched, for example, or new and innovative corporate structures are to be tested. The team members contribute an array of diverse attributes in respect of their gender, age, background and length of company service. Differing approaches to work, as well as different behaviours, opinions and values will also be in the mix. Cultural considerations such as respect, openness and equality of opportunity are an essential foundation in these kinds of set-ups. Diverse teams whose members share similar expertise and personal qualities generally “gel” more quickly and can, thus, achieve top performance more rapidly in pursuit of common objectives.

To ensure that all these advantages are brought to bear, the teams will have a stable core of members but will also be flexible and dynamic. This nucleus will wax or wane depending on the volume of work assigned, prevailing conditions and the objectives set. When a member joins a new team, the group will benefit from fresh insights and, in return, the employee in question will acquire new experience – exchanges of knowledge will, thus, remain in constant flux. Members of staff will have the opportunity for personal growth, taking on more responsibility, helping to develop young talent or undergoing further training in new fields. Cross-team expert groups, workshops, vocational training courses and community activities promote knowledge transfer throughout the company. The dynamic nature these exchanges engender is an important additional component, helping companies to survive and thrive in complex systems and the economy of the future.

Leadership: striking a balance between trust and expectation

Good leadership is another important factor in flexible teams. In an increasingly uncertain operating environment, it is essential to fully “on board” each individual employee – unlike organisational arrangements such as holocracies in which hierarchies are dispensed with altogether, autonomous teams can be coordinated in a more structured way. Team leaders take charge of line management and are answerable for the successful delivery of projects and tasks within a framework of clear objectives and unambiguous responsibilities. Factors such as time, money and working structures must also be established and team leaders should clarify which decision-making competencies are within the team’s remit and how decisions should be monitored – e.g. achievement of objectives, adherence to certain processes.

Managers have coaching skills, address fears, discuss development goals, provide training opportunities, create transparency and openness in respect of processes and decisions, and ensure that objectives and “purpose” are clearly anchored within the company. In addition, they promote a consistent culture for decision-making and dealing with “mistakes”, encouraging creativity, independent action and cost-awareness. Transparent handling of contradictions enhances critical reasoning and lateral thinking – a sclerotic, backward-looking environment will never foster dynamic ideas for the future.

Entrepreneurship within the company

Bearing these broad conditions and management skills in mind will enable as many employees as possible to become entrepreneurs within the firm, exhibiting independence and commitment. The job satisfaction of the workforce is a company’s greatest asset and is critically important to its ongoing development and sustainable commercial success. Companies that apply these principles consistently become attractive employers and create conditions in which the breakneck pace of technological and economic change can be accommodated – an important prerequisite for corporate survival in a VUCA world.