Talk about strategy, risk management or change and it is inevitable that the acronym VUCA — short for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity—will come up. VUCA is basically a catchall for “Hey, it’s crazy out there!” And like many catch-all’s it is misleading, VUCA conflates four distinct types of challenges that demand four distinct types of responses. VUCA can quickly become a crutch, a way to throw off the hard work of strategy and planning—after all, you can’t prepare for a VUCA world, right?
The mistake folks often make here is treating these four traits as a single idea, which leads to poorer decision making.
VUCA really isn’t a tool. It’s a checklist of four things that hopefully your system is paying attention to. All four represent distinct elements that make our environment and organization harder to grasp and control.
There are many forms of bias that we must be cognizant during problem solving and decision making.
That chart can be a little daunting. I’m just going to mention three of the more common biases.
Attribution bias: When we do something well, we tend to think it’s because of our own merit. When we do something poorly, we tend to believe it was due to external factors (e.g. other people’s actions). When it comes to other people, we tend to think the opposite – if they did something well, we consider them lucky, and if they did something poorly, we tend to think it’s due to their personality or lack of skills.
Confirmation bias: The tendency to seek out evidence that supports decisions and positions we’ve already embraced – regardless of whether the information is true – and putting less weight on facts that contradict them.
Hindsight bias: The tendency to believe an event was predictable or preventable when looking at the sequence of events in hindsight. This can result in oversimplification of cause and effect and an exaggerated view that a person involved with an event could’ve prevented it. They didn’t know the outcome like you do now and likely couldn’t have predicted it with the information available at the time.
A few ways to address our biases include:
Bouncing ideas off of others, especially those not involved in the discussion or decision.
Surround yourself with a diverse group of people and do not be afraid to consider dissenting views. Actively listen.
Imagine yourself in other’s shoes.
Be mindful of your internal environment. If you’re struggling with a decision, take a moment to breathe. Don’t make decisions tired, hungry or stressed.
Consider who is impacted by your decision (or lack of decision). Sometimes, looking at how others will be impacted by a given decision will help to clarify the decision for you.
We have all had the first rule of brainstorming, “defer judgment,” drilled into us for years. The general rule of “When a person proposes an idea, don’t say, ‘Yes, but…’ to point out flaws in the idea; instead, say, ‘Yes, and…’” which is intended to get people to add to the original idea, has become almost a norm in business settings. We have all become improv actors.
That truism is probably not a good one though. It can lend to a fairly superficial approach. Yes we need to be beyond “Yes, but”, but “Yes, and” stifles creativity. The concept of “Yes, and” gives an illusion of moving forward, avoiding conflict, but also prevents truly diving in and exploring issues.
We need to combine the best aspects of criticism and ideation, “Yes…but…and.” I propose idea A, a colleague first addresses what she perceives to be a flaw in it, provides constructive feedback (this is the “but”), and then suggests a possible way to overcome or avoid the flaw, yielding Idea B (this is the “and”). Then you do the same: You acknowledge Idea B, provide a constructive critique, and develop a new, even more improved result. Others can jump in with their critiques and proposals during the process. This kind of constructive interaction encourages a deep cycle of critical dialogues that can lead to a coherent, breakthrough idea.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
When you see a weakness in the idea, don’t simply say, “This does not work.” Rather, first explain the problem and then propose an improvement that would make it work.
When you do not understand the idea, don’t simply say, “That’s unclear to me.” Instead, first point to the specific spot that is unclear and then propose possible alternative interpretations: “Do you mean X or Y?” This helps all participants to see more detailed options
When you like the idea, do not just take it as it is. Instead, search for possible improvements and then push forward to make it even better.
When you listen to someone’s critique of your idea,try to learn from it. Listen carefully to the critique, be curious, and wonder, “Why is my colleague suggesting this contrasting view that is not in line with what I see? Perhaps there is an even more powerful idea hidden behind our two perspectives.” The critique becomes a positive force, focusing the team on overcoming its weaknesses and enhancing the original idea.
We gather for a meeting, usually around a table, place our collective attention on the problem, and let, most likely let our automatic processes take over. But, all too often, this turns out to be a mistake. From this stems poor meetings, bad decisions, and a general feeling of malaise that we are wasting time.
Problem-solving has stages, it is a process, and in order for groups to collaborate effectively and avoid talking past one another, members must all be in the same problem-solving stage. In order to make this happen our meetings must be methodical.
In a methodical meeting, for each issue that needs to be discussed, members deliberately and explicitly choose just one problem-solving stage to complete.
To convert an intuitive meeting into a methodical one take your meeting agenda, and to the right of each agenda item, write down a problem-solving stage that will help move you closer to a solution, as well as the corresponding measurable outcome for that stage. Then, during that part of the meeting, focus only on achieving that outcome. Once you do, move on.
A Template for Conducting a Methodical Meeting
Pair each agenda item with a problem solving stage and a measurable outcome.
Problem Solving Stage
Select a venue for the offsite
List of potential venues
Discuss ERP usage problems
Implement new batch record strategy
Plan for Implementation
List of actions / owners / due dates
Review proposed projects
List of strengths and weaknesses
Choose a vendor
If you don’t know which problem-solving stage to choose, consider the following:
Do you genuinely understand the problem you’re trying to solve? If you can’t clearly articulate the problem to someone else, chances are you don’t understand it as well as you might think. If that’s the case, before you start generating solutions, consider dedicating this part of the meeting to framing and ending it with a succinctly written problem statement.
Do you have an ample list of potential solutions? If the group understands the problem, but hasn’t yet produced a set of potential solutions, that’s the next order of business. Concentrate on generating as many quality options as possible (set the alternatives).
Do you know the strengths and weaknesses of the various alternatives? Suppose you have already generated potential solutions. If so, this time will be best spent letting the group evaluate them. Free attendees from the obligation of reaching a final decision—for which they may not yet be ready—and let them focus exclusively on developing a list of pros and cons for the various alternatives.
Has the group already spent time debating various alternatives? If the answer is yes, use this part of the meeting to do the often difficult work of choosing. Make sure, of course, that the final choice is in writing.
Has a decision been made? Then focus on developing an implementation plan. If you’re able to leave the conversation with a comprehensive list of actions, assigned owners, and due dates, you can celebrate a remarkably profitable outcome.