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Rich Celm: Operating in an uncertain world

Rich Celm: Operating in an uncertain world

Rich Celm advises Queen’s Young Leaders on how to steer and grow their projects in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous circumstances

The term ‘VUCA’ stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous and comes from military vocabulary. Like many military tools and techniques, it has found its way into the business world.

Can you tell us why this term is currently resonating with CEOs worldwide?

Technology is forcing change to occur at ever increasing speed.

Computer power – or processor speed – doubles every two years. At the same time, the size and cost of computer technology shrinks. This is known as Moore’s Law and is having a profound effect on our world.

High school kids can now do with a laptop in their bedrooms what only large corporations could afford to do 10 to 20 years ago. So barriers to markets are disappearing.

Technology is helping communities in developing nations achieve the same change in 10 to 15 years that western communities did in three to four generations. Throw in globalisation, and the impact is the VUCA world we live in today and see globally on our TVs and all around us.

VUCA resonates with CEOs because they are looking to build a pipeline of leaders within their organisations that have the skills and capabilities to deliver value in this world – not the hierarchical world they once thrived in. So that is leaders who are agile, adaptive and can lead and provide direction in ambiguity.

How does working in this VUCA world, affect organisational planning and the sustainability of a project?

A VUCA world forces more projects to engage with customers and stakeholders from the outset. It forces leaders to have a much better understanding of the importance of strategic decision making, focus, readiness planning, risk management and problem solving.

The military does this in a quite structured way when complex decisions need to be made. The startup world also does this well by developing ‘minimum viable products’ with customers – ensuring the highest return on investment for the least risk.

Read how Enabled City consults users to develop products and services

It’s so important to collaborate and share information and knowledge. This startup process is known as the ‘Lean Startup Methodology’.

Read Colin Jones' advice on starting up and the Lean Methodology

How can a leader actively engage with uncertainty?

By collecting, interpreting and sharing information.

Being well informed, thirsting for knowledge and being connected with people from different cultures, backgrounds and experiences helps tremendously. Having a network of young leaders from around the world who you can collaborate with – and share problems and issues with – is a great way to engage with uncertainty.

Leaders need to be more connected and networked, and need to be able to collaborate more at every stage.

Traditional leaders were often experts who could do, and formerly had done, most of the roles of the people working underneath them. Nowadays, it’s more likely that team members are doing technical tasks that the leader wouldn’t be able to do.

Leaders need to be open to 'reverse mentoring' – where people junior to them are providing guidance and advice on new trends and workplace norms. Such is the speed of change.

Therefore it’s vital leaders understand risk, know what questions to ask and have people around them that may have come across similar problems, who they can collaborate with and learn from.

How can Queen’s Young Leaders, their organisations and projects, remain flexible and agile so that they can respond to changing circumstances?

Experimentation is the only way an organisation can learn about cause-and-effect relationships and then adapt to exploit them.

Queen’s Young Leaders must be prepared to take risks when not much is known. They must cultivate a culture within their teams where failure isn’t bad as long as the organisation is learning, and knowledge is being captured and then shared.

Failure mustn’t lead to blame and a reluctance to take further risks. It must be seen as a vital and often necessary step to achieving success instead.

What sort of opportunities does a VUCA world provide for social enterprises and voluntary and community projects?

Opportunities for people who are transforming communities with their projects and organisations are really endless.

A VUCA world is one where entrepreneurs are everywhere and technology and innovation thrive. People are getting increasingly frustrated with governments, bureaucracy and antiquated institutions that often no longer work. Smart people solving problems sustainably are well placed to service the needs of communities.

Many governments are actively encouraging, educating and financing social enterprises, and voluntary and community projects. They see them as a more cost-effective way to deliver value than the traditional model. It costs them less and the community often gets a better more tailored product or service.

What’s the best way a small, resource-stretched project can take advantage of such opportunities?

Create value and then capture the results.

If small organisations can do that through a scalable process, then finding someone – for example, in government, a corporate partner, or crowdfunding community – to finance your growth becomes a lot easier. Because you can prove your model works.

For example, the National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs (NACUE) in the UK encourages students to become entrepreneurs through student-led training and programmes. When the UK government was dealing with the Global Financial Crisis and growing unemployment, NACUE was able to demonstrate its value and secure significant public and private sector funding.

What’s the best way for such a project to anticipate risks posed by VUCA in the economy, politics, environment etc?

Awareness – ensuring you make time to work on your business, social enterprise or project and not just in it.

  • Regularly update your political, economic, social and technological (PEST) legal and environmental (or PESTLE) analysis.
  • Be well connected
  • Share everything.

People are much more likely to tell you about things that may impact you if they know what you’re doing and what your future plans are.

How does operating in a VUCA world affect an organisation’s communication strategy?

Staff need to be well trained and practiced in how to think and react to situations. Instantaneous access to information means it’s no longer possible to have official lines. Staff need to understand their organisation’s mission, vision and purpose so they can achieve and express its beliefs, values and standards

For example, in August 2015 a caterpillar was found in a red capsicum (or pepper) purchased at an Australian supermarket. The supermarket, Coles, responded with an apology, a touch of humour, empathy and a resolution.

Whilst it would be difficult to train staff on what to write in each situation, you can train staff to follow a process which reinforces and the desired company’s voice.

How can a leader manage and empower volunteers and staff to adapt to changing circumstances in a VUCA world?

Through clear and well defined goals that inspire their teams. And by capturing and sharing the value their teams create and the knowledge they amass.

Give people a purpose. Allow them to innovate without a fear of failure. And share knowledge.

Develop your teams in an open and honest environment and get your teams comfortable with being uncomfortable.