Insight article


Countering contagion: storytelling for the VUCA age

How do you protect your teams from contagion? How do you do business while ‘self-isolating’? How do you risk manage the systemic complexities and co-dependencies of global markets? How healthy are your supply chains looking right now? 

From biblical African locust swarms to the outbreak of epidemic, the new decade has already served business leaders with multiple opportunities for sober reflection. Besides the worry for global staff in at-risk areas, organisations everywhere are also uneasily eyeing up supply chains, trade routes and international prospects as economic shocks and death tolls continue to dominate international headlines. 

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Four words that constitute today’s new normal. To lead in whatever capacity today is to occupy a context that lurches dizzyingly between hyper-vigilance and blinkered laissez-faire. Prepare for everything, all at once, all the time – or give up the reins of control completely. 

Neither, of course, are tenable (though the last four weeks alone may be enough to leave many Executive teams tempted by the latter). The balance that must now be struck is how to navigate the unknowable; to set direction, without destination; to become, borrowing Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s definition, ‘anti-fragile’: able to absorb shocks with ease and turn them into advantage. How to do all this while navigating your personal fears, hopes, strengths, and blind spots. And how, of course, to do all this through others – maybe five, maybe fifty thousand – each with their own complex reality to sail through as you seek to steady the ship. 

As the recent HRD Summit proved, the business world is alive to these profoundly liminal questions. What is the solution, it asked (over two days, multiple stages and feted thought leaders in the presence of more than a thousand UK leaders) to a world that can no longer be predicted?

VUCA was a term coined by the US military to breakdown and risk manage the deadly unknowables of war. Leaders at the Summit and beyond have long been urged to deploy similarly robust and carefully plotted defensive strategies. They must embrace agility; decentralise; become ‘emergent’. Importantly, they must select a philosophy, a method, a trademark of change. Then, they must swiftly embody and embed. 

At the HRD Summit, we talked about storytelling and narrative. Because while the language of change will come and go, the story of change will always stay the same.

Change is the essential human process. Second by second, it’s the thing we never stop doing; it’s how we’ve survived to become the dominant species on the planet. But it’s also the thing we mentally resist the most: prepped by our ancestral brains to seek the safety and efficiency of the known, the stable and the predictable. 

We’ve become dab hands at ‘embedding’. We have built an industry to design systems of change at great opacity, complexity and cost into which people are meant to fit. 

Along the way, we have forgotten to ‘embody’. 

Change starts inside your own mind. As leaders, this means your success in the VUCA world is largely a question of mindset. Yes, there are always myriad complicating factors; things that spin out far beyond the locus of your control. But in the VUCA world, it’s about what sits within the locus of your control, and what you do with those things, that counts. 

As Professor Richard Wiseman shows, this process starts by taking control of the story of change you tell yourself. Control becomes power when this story is visible in every action, every day. Power becomes empowerment when you can invite people into a shared narrative and give them the tools to shape their own story as you go on the journey together. 

To embody change is to lead change. To pay lip service to change is to fail. As Deborah Rowland emphasised in her keynote address, ‘if leaders stay stuck in their habitual response, so will their organisations’. 

The language of change will come and go, but the story will stay the same. And the story of change starts with you.

Imogen Wallersteiner

Content Associate

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