Surf the Change

VUCA is a great concept for organizations to adapt from the military. But we may want to adapt it even further.

Change in organizations these days is stressful, unending, relentless, and a fact of life. So how about SURF?

In 2012, I wrote that stress will continue to stay at a heightened level.

Why? According to news reports on the U.S. economy, hiring will be slow in 2012, and many employers are planning further headcount cuts. Workloads, however, are likely to keep going up. "Doing more with less" will continue.

This is the main driver of workplace stress! When you combine workloads, pressure, and time shortages, with uncertainty and chaos, much of it due to organizational change, watch out: stress will increase. As decades of stress research has taught us, the more stress, the greater the negative effects.

Should managers care? In short, Yes. Stress takes a big toll on employee engagement, on performance, and on health. In today's whitewater working environment, managers need to develop leadership capabilities for resilience in themselves and others.

What can managers do? In military schools, leaders are taught about VUCA, an acronym that stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. VUCA environments, like many of today's hyper-stressed workplaces, demand much of those in leadership roles.

With VUCA as a framework, here are four more elements that I believe are key in today's workplaces:

Volatile - The more things change, the more the volatility that people have to deal with. As Holmes and Rahe taught us decades ago, change means stress. The more change, the more stress, the greater the danger. Managers and their teams need to toughen their change readiness capability to withstand such volatility.

Uncertain - In uncertain environments, predictability drops, and surprises rise. In such a climate, planning, organizing, and adaptability take on a critical importance for managers and their teams.

Complex - You know you are dealing with complexity when confusion and chaos become the norm. Many of the problems that teams face in today's organizations are truly complex. This means there are no obvious "low hanging fruit" solutions that they can quickly implement. Instead, managers and their teams need to learn new ways to think critically and creatively to solve the dilemmas they face.

Ambiguous - In the midst of chaos, a team needs the mental ability to maintain their "line of sight" toward their objective. Having a clear and compelling sense of purpose ('Where can I do the most good for the business right now?') helps to laser focus on the most pressing priorities.

As I write this, I am anticipating the Thanksgiving holiday later this week, followed by Christmas and the coming of a New Year. I think we need more help.

I think we need more. I think we need SURF:

Stress - What are you doing to manage the stress in your organization? Do you even know how stressed out people are, yourself included?

Unending - There was a time when change projects were "neat," having a beginning, middle, and ending. Forget about that now. These days, change is like a roaring flood.

Relentless - There is no end to it. Some management pundits preach the gospel of change. Jack Welch once said "Change before you have to." That is why we are where we are. Welcome to the new normal.

Fact of Life - If you don't want any part of it, good luck. Are there still monasteries where you can cut yourself odd from the world? If so, go and good luck.

The answer is to become a surfer of change. Surfers of big waves do something that most of us will never do. But there are lessons we can adapt. For example, Dr Elana Miller of Zen Psychiatry offers this wisdom:

"The ocean doesn't care about you. It is a force of nature that existed long before you were born and that will be around long after you. We operate under the illusion of control when so many of the most important things in life aren't even close to the realm of our control. When you release yourself from the illusion of control, you can relax. You can put in your best effort but let things turn out how they'll turn out. You can find moments of joy in the most simple things. So don't fight forces of nature. Ride them."

If you are a Manager right now, consider all of the above as a checklist for 2014. What do you resolve to work on to help your team cope with the stress and thrive in your organization?

Posted on Tuesday November 26, 2013 by Terrence Seamon, surfer of change


Bill Bevans said…
In the 70's as a fledgling OD Manager at General Foods, I had a conversation with Dick Beckhard about his OD definition: "planned change ... managed from the top", etc and he used the analogy of football moving the ball down the field. I had some difficult seeing "change" on a 100 yard field and suggested that a more appropriate sports analogy might be surfing. He smiled, but I believe he was thinking, "Oh these kids and their surf boards."

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