Coaching Wednesdays: Coaching in the VUCA environment

Many of us are working in what is commonly referred to as a VUCA environment.  VUCA stands for: volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.  Or put another way; ‘the ongoing churn in the business environment’ (Bennett & Lemoine 2014). The term VUCA originates from the US military and was applied to the emerging contexts that organisations are operating within.  These business environments are particularly challenging for people to work in and as coaches we need to think about the best way to support our clients who are trying to make sense of complex situations where risk and rewards are high.

Before we look at VUCA in some detail it is worth mentioning 2 simple ways to support clients in businesses that are facing these challenges.  The first is to encourage your coachee to examine their communication skills in depth.  They will need to engage with people they may find difficult, or who are simply hard-to-reach.  We all need to learn and learn fast in VUCA environments and listening to different perspectives is vital.  Ask your coachee to reflect on their listening skills and to notice the physical reaction they experience when they are on the receiving end of criticism.  ‘Listening-to-learn rather than to convince’ is the description used by Berger and Fitzgerald (2015) and this sums up the change that is often required, especially at senior level.  I remember working on a leadership programme in a NHS Trust, many years ago, and a director telling me that he would often attend meetings “to stop certain things happening” .  Well, the VUCA environment demands a different communication strategy.

The second is related but worth separating out, and that is to take notice of the informal conversations that are going on.  What are the stories that are being told in the car-park, at the water cooler, in the cloakroom?  In hierarchical organsiations this is where authentic conversations happen, and reveal what really matters to people.  A colleague related a story to me just this week where a senior manager had assumed that discontent within a department was down to a forthcoming restructure, when in fact the problems that were creating tensions had existed for much longer.  They could have been addressed quickly and easily if only someone had listened when they first surfaced.

VUCA – what does it mean, and how do you start a coaching conversations in VUCA businesses?

Bennett and Lemoine (2014) advocate examining each term separately in order to understand their different nuances and potential impact on individual and business performance.

  •  Volatility means unstable change that is unpredictable, but crucially you understand the situation and can predict outcomes of any changes. So an example of this might be fluctuating prices that you need to pay for a key product or service. Flexibilty is required to cope in a volatile situation – and this means being able to flex both your thinking and your resources.  Having reserves; financial, skills you can depend upon, and emotional support, helps enormously.

     Volatility:  what are you dealing with?

    Unstable change, which may arrive at speed, is unpredictable and frequent

    Starting place for a conversation about managing in a volatile environment:

    Your coachee’s understanding of the situation and cause and effects

    What you and your coachees can work on:

    Agility is required in a volatile environment. This means flexible thinking and flexible systems.  Develop the ability to hold different perspectives.  Build reserves in all areas: financial, knowledge, competence, emotional. This will enable you to take the initiative in volatile environments.

  •  Uncertainty is when you have a lack of information and knowledge about a situation.  Your coachees may be able to collect the necessary data easily but it is also worthwhile mapping out business relationships and networks so they don’t overlook a useful group who can inform the current situation.  And this maybe an opportunity to engage with stakeholders in a way that promotes honest dialogue about the future.

     Uncertainty: what are you dealing with?

    A lack of information and knowledge

    Starting place for a conversation about managing in an uncertain environment:

    Ask about your coachee’s current networks and other places where they can obtain the information they need.

    What you and your coachees can work on:

    Strategies to engage with stakeholders to encourage a flow of information. Advanced listening skills and a willingness to be open to challenge are essential as the most useful information may be challenging to hear.

Complexity – not to be confused with complicated which might be difficult but is predictable.  In complex situations there are many interconnected moving parts which you cannot control.  It is important to look for patterns in complex situations to find a way through, as the old rules do not apply.  ‘Learning from the system as it changes is the best way to move in a desirable direction’ (Berger & Fitzgerald 2015). This means small experiments that you can learn from and recover from quickly if they fail. And in terms of organisations this often means numerous rounds of restructuring to align with the external context.

Complexity: what are you dealing with?

A lot of different interconnected forces which you cannot control forcing constant change.

Starting place for a conversation about managing in a complex environment:

Look for the emerging patterns in the current situation, rather than seeking to impose order.

What you and your coachees can work on:

Develop resilience to change and encourage leadership and self-reliance rather than a reliance on a system of hierarchy.

  • Ambiguity creates confusion.  Coachees are often seeking clarity and this is not available.  Working-out-loud, where you share your work in progress will encourage others to collaborate and you can then move forward together using an iterative approach.

Ambiguity: what are you dealing with?

A lack of understanding about a situation.  You don’t know what to expect.

Starting place for a conversation about managing in an ambiguous environment:

Share your confusions

What you and your coachees can work on:

A willingness to work out loud, to be willing to experiment and take an iterative approach.


Bennett N., Lemoine G., (2014) What a dfference a word makes: Understanding threats to performance in a VUCA world. Business Horizons 57 Elsevier

Berger J., Fitzgerald C., (2015) Coaching for an Increasingly Complex World: A Cultivating Leadership Whitepaper.

Wilson W., Lawton-Smith C., (2016) Spot-Coaching: A new approach t coaching for organisations operating in the VUCA environment, International Coaching Pyschology Review Vol 11

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