VUCA: Failure to Adapt or Adapt to Failure?

Last time we covered the origins and the background of the term VUCA. In this blog post, we'll be digging deeper into why most organisations and individual people find it so difficult to adapt to it. The way we'll be doing that is by telling two separate stories about failure.

"You have to be able to accept failure to get better." - Lebron James

The best safety professionals learn early on that the most important part of creating safety culture, is to embrace the habit of reporting near misses and hazard observations in order to avoid the costlier failures such as accidents and fatalities. What all of them essentially are is just feedback; feedback from what's working, or not, in the overall system of organisational safety. Feedback loops work equally well when a kid is shooting a basketball, missing and learning from her or his mistakes, or when a sales team records not just won deals but also lost deals to learn and improve in the future. The point is not just to blindly record the mistake but to adjust, to course-correct, to adapt bit-by-bit. Hence, whenever we talk about adapting to VUCA, failures, errors, mistakes and feedback loops are always at the heart of it.


McNamara - The "Perfect" Gatekeeper

Out of all the possible reasons why organisations fail to adapt to a changing environment, having gatekeepers to filter important information or prevent its flow altogether is probably the most silent killer. Nowhere else has this been more apparent than when US President Lyndon B. Johnson and his defence secretary Robert McNamara were in charge of the Vietnam War. Based on the traditional military leadership they thought that having a strict hierarchy and centralised management of all information and decision-making would bring the best results. This modus operandi was executed so that McNamara worked as the gatekeeper between military leaders and the president, and made sure the news reaching Johnson was always to his liking. Bad news was filtered out and conflicting information was harmonised. Of course, this information that reached the top of the food chain, wasn't something that turned out to matter. The war zone in Vietnam was changing so rapidly that the US Troops seemed to be always several steps behind its enemy.


Rumsfeld - The refusal to listen

Fast forward forty years later, the Iraq war and invasion is under way, and it seems once again that the leaders in the top had learned nothing from the previous mistakes. Or had they? Unlike in Vietnam, there was no shortage of conflicting information shared to the top in Iraq. Some of it was given already before the invasion by General Eric Shinseki and some of it during the war by Lt General John Abizaid. Although it was obvious that Rumsfeld's strategy was failing miserably, it's remarkable how long the leaders refused to even listen.

Strategies go wrong all the time whether the operation happens on a battlefield or in business. The problem isn’t that the initial strategy goes wrong. That's just a natural result when we operate in a volatile, uncertain and complex world. The problem comes when leaders fail to listen, learn from the past and adapt to the changing environment.


Final thoughts

VUCA world requires more agility and adaptation from both individuals and organisations than ever before. At the heart of adaptation is the ability to accept and learn from mistakes, errors and failures whether they relate to strategy, operations or risk management. To enable this, organisations must get rid of both organisational (information gatekeepers) and individual (refusal to listen) bottlenecks.


This blog post is the second part in our VUCA Blog series. For more on this topic, see these blog posts we've written:


Tune in next time as we dive deeper into the VUCA world and give you examples of failures from the past. If you want to dive straight into the deep end, you can already download our FREE white paper about the topic:

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