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Arguing for VUCA as the Standard Shorthand for Characterizing the Future

Arguing for VUCA as the Standard Shorthand for Characterizing the Future

May 2, 2023 by Daniel W. Rasmus, Serious Insights

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VUCA is an acronym for VolatilityUncertaintyComplexity, and Ambiguity. It’s a phrase intended to place a conceptual wrapper around all the things facing us. It does an adequate job of serving that purpose. There are, however, moves to improve this forward-looking term. I think those efforts insert unnecessary complexity to futures thinking that should be better spent helping people confront their concerns than confusing them with a waft of acronyms that speak to inner secrets rather than generalized knowledge.

Challenging BANI

Friend and colleague Jamais Caisco coined the term BANI, which offers a term constructed of Brittle, AnxiousNon-Linear, and Incomprehensible.

Let me start with the last term first: incomprehensible. I do not find the future incomprehensible. I have lived through over 60 years of futures, and I have not yet been impacted by something that I found incomprehensible. I have learned, adapted, and in many cases, mastered new technologies, participated in emergent social movements, and actively participated in local and national politics.

VUCA: Brittle
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As people who think about the future, our job is to make sense of weak signals and help people anticipate the future and navigate through it. Both of those activities require a comprehension of the future components. To say they are incomprehensible is to say that conducting sense-making work about the future is futile. I don’t believe it is.

The future must be comprehensible because anything challenging, anything new, most likely comes from the human intellect, and therefore someone comprehended the principles underlying the emergent idea.

Understanding VUCA

As VUCA suggests, the future may well be complex and ambiguous, but it is not incomprehensible. It may appear incomprehensible to many, but once it arrives, if the driving force, the new thing, is to have an effect, it must be comprehended.

Brittle offers a sense that as we move into the future, it will break—but I think humanity and the planet are more resilient than this assertion suggests.

Anxious is a state of mind, not a state of existence. People can be anxious about the future, but the future is not anxious. Only people can be anxious—not animals, not rivers, not weather conditions, not the planet.

Finally, I find non-linear to simply be wrong. The future is linear, as the arrow of time moves only in one direction in all but theoretical quantum and relativistic situations; the unfolding future does so step-by-step

And that returns me to VUCA. The future is very much uncertain. That does not mean it is non-linear; it means there is no data about the future, and therefore, we cannot know how the future will unfold. When we look back, however, at the future as history, it will tell many stories, but they will all be linear, the causes and effects clearly articulated. And while the effects of economics and politics will be uneven in their distribution, they will be what they are historically and, therefore, linear at the personal and civilization levels.

VUCA: Complex
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When I explore Volatility through the lens of my Wordflex Touch Dictionary, the tools suggest some overlap, as it lists uncertain as a viable alternative. Aside from that nearness, other words that volatile invokes include fluid, mutable, changing, unsettled, variable, inconsistent, and erratic. All the ideas that need to be encapsulated in the chosen word, the ideas that need to be embraced by people deciding to purposefully look into the future. Uncertain does that work.

I see complexity and ambiguity playing together, as complexity makes it difficult for people to understand what they are seeing—but it does not make those things incomprehensible, only worthy of intellectual engagement. These terms prove complementary, not overlapping, as complexity may lead to ambiguity, but simple things, such as a lack of transparency in an area where only the opaque nature of processes shrouds information, should be considered ambiguous, though not complex.

VUCA, does not, as Jamais suggests, describe the present, although in many cases, it may ALSO describe the present; because of the fundamental uncertainty about the future, VUCA necessarily offers a description of the future that delivers a more open, versatile set of attributes than BANI.

What about TUNA?

Oxford University’s executive education program uses TUNA, or TurbulentUncertainNovel, and Ambiguous. I see this as a move to craft a term that captures the essentials of VUCA but attempts to put a proprietary spin on it—again, I don’t think this does anything positive for the discipline of future thinking. 

Turbulent is a synonym for volatileUncertain is still uncertain

Novel proves interesting, but I think incongruous with future-casting, as it makes the assertion that the future will be, in general, an environment that either is itself or is filled with things that would be considered more revolutionary than evolutionary. Novel sets too high an expectation and may force people considering the future to fail in identifying more mundane developments.

And finally, there is RUPT…

The final acronym is RUPT, which stands for RapidUnpredictableParadoxical, and Tangled. This U.S. military-derived term feels much more immediate than VUCA. For the military, the future often arrives rapidly, as in an unforeseen attack on a convoy. 

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Unpredictable, like incomprehensible, suggests giving in to the inevitable rather than grappling with it.

Paradoxical suggests contradictory but includes incomprehensible among its synonyms. It also suggests confusing, absurd, and bewildering. To me, the inclusion of paradoxical suggests a systemic clinging to the present, the status quo, that elevates the future to the mystical—that it must be confounding because it is unknown. And again, I see this as giving into the uncertainty rather than putting a name on uncertainty and purposefully trying to understand its features and its implications.

Speaking plainly

During a recent symposium on generative AI at the University of Washington, I suggested that if generative AI could mimic the style of an academic to make papers that read with aloofness and distance, then perhaps it was time for academics to start writing more plainly, to write for more general readers. Writing well for a general population takes nothing away from the data and the facts, but it does make the findings more accessible.

In Too Big to Know, author David Weinberger outlines all of the ways we keep knowledge from people. One major gate is teaching a particular language of learning that purposefully obscures knowledge from those without the proper keys—and embeds it in a style that forces distance between the material and the reader.

Popular science journals attempt to decode this learning, to make it accessible. But wouldn’t it be better if those with first-hand accounts were written for general readers so we could consume not just the facts, discoveries and data, but the joy and awe in the work? Researchers should be taught how to communicate with the public.

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I write the aside about language because analysts and consultants often seek to put their stamp on an idea to differentiate themselves from others in public dialog. When I was at Forrester Research, we had entire meetings on how to create, for instance, a competitive concept for the Gartner Magic Quadrant.

Those discussions ended up with the Forrester Wave. Perhaps that kind of effort speaks more to intellectual property, but regardless, the addition of another tool that competes with one that works perfectly well creates cognitive dissonance for consumers. VUCA works perfectly well. If we socialize on one term, we can move the discussion forward rather than arguing about the term so that we diminish the momentum.

Our role as people who think about the future should be to make the discipline accessible and the skills adoptable, not overtly academize our work so we end up looking smart at the expense of those whom we are trying to help build better futures.

Read more at SeriousInsights.net >

Daniel W. Rasmus, the author of Listening to the Future, is a strategist and industry analyst who has helped clients put their future in context. Rasmus uses scenarios to analyze trends in society, technology, economics, the environment, and politics in order to discover implications used to develop and refine products, services and experiences. He leverages this work and methodology for content development, workshops and for professional development.