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CR Special: Pandemic redefining the meaning of VUCA World

Guys, this is a special piece. The piece is collectively written by Saurabh Bajaj (Marketing Head, Dairy at Britannia) and Sundar Kondur (Senior VP, Bennett Coleman and Co. Ltd. (Times Group)) two of the most appreciated Industry stalwarts out there. The CR team is eternally grateful to both of them for putting this together. With the kind of experience they have, we fail to think of a better duo who could do justice to this topic. Let’s take a look at how the meaning of VUCA World changed during and will change in the post-COVID era.

Let’s jump right in the piece!

The Testing times

I guess it would be an understatement to say that humanity has gone through testing times.

The pandemic redefined everything that we once took for granted. It brought about a period where humanity withdrew from the public spaces they have owned for thousands of years. It brought about the time where even a simple human contact was shunned. It even took the feeling of breathing in the fresh air away from us!

On the Professional front, the pandemic took a toll on several businesses, leading to an eventual fold up. However, the pandemic redefined the rules by which we worked, consumed services, and even the nature of the entertainment, consumption & hygiene.

And yet, we are all proud of the fact that humanity adapted, survived and thrived in the new normal that is now upon all of us.

The pandemic is the textbook definition of all that we know by the word VUCA which is an acronym for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity & Ambiguity. Individually these terms mean:

  • V (Volatility): Refers to the speed at which the World can see change. We all witnessed this last March were within a few weeks all our ways of working changes
  • U (Uncertainty): It talks about an unpredictable future, for example, manufacturing pulling out all discretionary investments
  • C (Complexity): Tough circumstances. Was seen where certain channels saw buoyancy/dip during COVID, but tough to predict how long these changes will last
  • A (Ambiguity): Confusion. for example our forecast periods got shorter and with “if’s” & “but’s” because the nature of the beast seemed to change & evolve

VUCA was coined by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus and used as a strategic response in US Army College during the collapse of the then powerful USSR in the early 1990s. It instils a sense of fear and anxiety amongst people. Millions of training programs have been conducted world over to middle and senior-level executives on how to tackle or deal with VUCA. Today VUCA has become a practical code for awareness and readiness and a model for dealing with business exigencies and vagaries of the external environment.

The meaning of VUCA World, redefined?
“Whereas the heroic manager of the past knew all, could do all and could solve every problem, the post-heroic manager asks how every problem can be solved in a way that develops other people´s capacity to handle it.“ 

~Charles Hand, Irish economic and social philosopher

While the principles of VUCA World were practised and many a situation was handled successfully for many years, 2020 has been a brutal year. It has redefined VUCA. A wise thing today would be to look at the changing world in a new light. Vision is like a guiding compass for managers to navigate through uncertain times and deal with hurdles and still overcome them.

Meaning-of-VUCA-World-SundarKondur
VUCA model redefined

Never losing sight of the ultimate goal.

Understanding comes from knowing the internal environment of the company and the industry that we operate in and to superimpose on the external environments the challenges that we face to eventually derive what is the best course of action thereon. With a clear focus and vision, look at what is the goal and align our purpose to that goal. When there are many unknowns out there, it’s the multitude of skills in the bouquet of each organisation that must be unleashed to tackle the situation.

A great leader knows this from his understanding of the situation and the knowledge of his internal resources.

Clarity of thought is a critical aspect once the above two are taken into consideration.

Most of the time, it’s simple, and once we learn to break the issues into smaller parts, it becomes ideal to solve them bit by bit. This also gives you absolute clarity on what must be done to achieve clearly defined goals.

While Agility and resilience were one of the most discussed topics in 2020, when staring at the unknowns, we must be agile to adapt. Organisations that have done this have come out of the pandemic successfully. Organisations are made of people and they are the biggest assets. When faced with uncertainty and challenging times, we are the one faced with ambiguous and an opaque future and at times like these, great leaders recognise that this is period of transformation and the transition should be handled with absolute clarity and vision.

Successful leaders have done this focused vision, dealt with their people with empathy, humility and made them inclusive with all decisions.

VUCA across the Industries

While the redefined VUCA has a human angle to it, there are also compelling examples from across the industries not only how a few corporates have survived, but also thrived during this time by leveraging the redefined principals!

Volatility

I guess some volatility is common. Economic cycles, fluctuations in the prices of crude oil, financial bubbles, stock market crashes are all a part and parcel of the experiences than an organization has to manage.

So what’s the antidote?

Is there a solution that guides successful organizations through these challenges?

One compelling solution is for the decisions of an organization to be led through the clarity of its Vision.

An example for us during the past year has been the performance of Cure. Fit versus other fitness chains like Gold Gym, ALDO etc. While most other fitness chains defined their business rather narrowly as fitness chains with gyms being their primary offer, Cure. Fit had a larger vision for its role in the fitness industry. So at a time when many fitness chains filed for bankruptcy, Cure. Fit was able to smartly pivot and go beyond gyms into the digital domain. Pre-lockdown, Cure. Fit had about 250,000 paid subscribers, and after the lockdown, they added 1.5 million subscribers.

The 1 million new users came in April & May when the subscription was free and they then managed to acquire 100,000 paid subscribers on specifically their fitness digital offers.

They continue to be led through their Vision which is to gain 50% market share of all forms of fitness in the next few years, be it online or offline!

Uncertainty

Uncertainty is often the evil that causes many of us to make the knee jerk decision to pull out investments simply because the future appears unpredictable. However, smart business owners and managers understand that the only solution to uncertainty is understanding! This was something that was demonstrated aptly by Britannia, one of the companies that delivered exceptional performance during the crisis.

When the top management at Britannia was quizzed on the secret behind their great results the answer very humbly was about keeping their ears on the ground with company people taking the effort to actually call retailers and understand the actual situation on the ground and take calls judiciously.

So when most companies were cutting back, Britannia went ahead and took the right steps and actually turned a crisis into an opportunity.

Complexity

The pandemic gave us a large number of mixed signals where one sector would boom or plummet in the early days of the crisis, only to see trends reversing by 180 degrees as things started opening up. So, first, a number of manufacturers suffered due to large overheads at the start of the pandemic and reacted by huge layoffs then the same manufacturers suffered again, once the demand came back, as they then didn’t have the manpower with the right training.

One company, however, that stood head and shoulders above others in their reaction to the pandemic was the Tata group. The Tata group not only raised and deployed INR 1500 Cr. to fight the pandemic facing the country but also deferred layoffs, they did not lay off even a single person.

In fact, Ratan Tata went on record to say that layoffs showed the lack of empathy of corporate India. Leading us to conclude that the true solution to an environment of complexity, is clearly making decisions for the long term through the lens of compassion and purpose!

Related: Take a look at Tata Pravesh in Lockdown

Ambiguity

Finally, the last challenge that leaders faced through the pandemic was ambiguity. The ambiguity of data, forecasts, of the right levers to make the right decisions. So what’s the answer that guides a leader, when there is no right answer?

The answer is clearly to invest in Agility.

Perhaps the finest example of Agility in this time was none other than the Indian government. While even countries as developed as the US & Europe struggled to craft a cohesive response to the pandemic, India actually led the way by announcing a lockdown early. Despite having a much poorer medical infrastructure than the west, the way India has balanced both the public health as well as the economy has been admirable.

The impact of an early lockdown and ample communication to the citizens of our country directly by the prime minister clearly shows the way by which India hit the peak and is now showing a progressive decline.

the meaning of VUCA WORLD

While the trends in the West, especially US have not been encouraging.

the meaning of VUCA WORLD

Clearly demonstrating that when faced with ambiguity, it’s not talent, resources or might that will take you through it, but rather the strength being Agile and taking quick, thought through decisions.

In Summary

While we have all heard of VUCA as a negative term that defines chaos, relevant examples through the pandemic have helped us redefine this term as an acronym that defines Corporate Excellence:

  • V = Vision: Be driven by a broader purpose that goes beyond the limit of what exists today to what you wish to dominate tomorrow
  • U = Understanding: Keep your ears to the ground and listen to understand. Once you make decisions through understanding even a crisis can become an opportunity
  • C = Compassion: Resolve complex situations first through the lens of humanity and compassion and undoubtedly you will do what is right
  • A = Agility: Resolve ambiguity through speed by taking judicious, well informed calls ahead of time

Let’s all try and take these learnings well beyond the crisis and adopt the new mantra of Vision, Understanding, Compassion & Agility into our professional DNAs so that we thrive not just because the pandemic has passed, but because of what it taught us!

The Author

The piece was co-authored by Saurabh Bajaj and Sundar Kondur, if the piece adds value, head on to LinkedIn, and drop a thank you. You can also share the piece with your best friend on LinkedIn & WhatsApp.

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