There’s a rather famous phrase that comes to mind when thinking about the current global situation: “May you live in interesting times”. It is famously misinterpreted as the translation of a Chinese curse; nevertheless, this phase is actually a starting point for an interesting debate. How can you live in “interesting times”? And what are “interesting times” for business owners?
Let’s look back at the last couple of months. The world has been through a whirlwind of healthcare and economic challenges, and few (if any) industries were left unaffected. Many knowledge workers now perform their jobs remotely, while governments and individual business organizations look for ways to keep the world going.
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Be it as it may, running a business has never been easy. Finding the right solution to address the problems one faces on a daily basis is quite a challenge.
VUCA, or how to do business in interesting times
When things tend to go crazy, VUCA seems to be the name of the game in managerial speak. As Harvard Business Review aptly puts it, VUCA is a catchall phrase that stands for “Hey, it’s crazy out there!”
Let’s see what VUCA is all about and what it stands for. The acronym is short for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. Complexity describes a situation that involves intricate problems, while the other three terms (volatility, uncertainty, and ambiguity) seem synonymous. But they are not.
In fact, each term refers to different contexts and situations that should be tackled in specific ways.
In a volatile situation, challenges are unexpected, one may not know how much it will take until everything is back to normal, but it is not difficult to understand what is going on. In general, there is knowledge available and you figure out how to solve the problem. For instance, in the Covid-19 context, people are more reluctant to spend money and may cut costs for a while.
If you have a training business and see that your clients are beginning to cancel projects, try to offer them something or find new business opportunities. If you provide only onsite training, invest in technology, train your employees, and go online to expand your client base. Show that you are willing to adapt and clients will follow you.
The second term of the acronym describes a situation in which people fail to predict certain changes. For instance, at one point in your professional life, a competitor will launch a better product, which might become a serious threat to your business. Basically, you can put a finger on the cause and predict the outcome.
What can you do? You can create a learning culture and be prepared to learn new things or to do things differently. A new approach to a structural problem (lack of innovation) is the best solution.
The situation you are facing had many aspects and variables, there are a lot of interconnections among them, but it is quite difficult to see the bigger picture. Too much data may sometimes be overwhelming. A common example: you have clients in many countries, each with its own legislation, regulations, and business culture. It’s not easy to find your way in a deep forest.
However, there are things you can do. The first that comes to mind is to bring on specialists that can tackle that level of complexity. Invest in learning and be open to change. For instance, cultural training might help you understand your clients and their needs and prove more useful than business-specific training.
This is the realm of the “unknown unknowns”. There are no precedents for these situations and the relations between cause and effect may seem blurry. Essentially, this is what happens when you plunge into the unknown: you expand into a completely new market, you launch products unrelated to your core competencies.
In this case, you have to understand that risk-taking and the willingness to experiment are the core skills. All you can do is to experiment, test your hypothesis, and try to understand the root causes of the outcomes. It might not be an easy process, but there is a chance of achieving amazing things.
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One of the greatest opening in world literature, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina goes like this: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Keep in mind that interesting times are interesting in their own way.