Great answers to tough questions in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times

Communicating about the business decisions you’re making can be especially difficult in times of volatility, in times of uncertainty, in times of complexity and in times of ambiguity.

For better or worse, these are the nature of the times in which we find ourselves at present.

The volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity with which we need to grapple are currently so pronounced that there’s been a revival of the buzzword to describe such times.

That buzzword is “VUCA”.

It’s the acronym for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.

There’s a lot of VUCA about during a period when the United Kingdom’s clumsy, spasmodic and seemingly never-ending departure from the European Union shifts course weekly, daily and sometimes hourly.

Additional VUCA is thrown into the mix by the erratic decision-making style – not to mention the predictably unpredictable tweeting – of President Donald Trump.

And there’s yet more VUCA arising from the ongoing disruptive impact of new technologies, global climate developments and the overall acceleration of change.

Image of a board meeting for MD2MDs post on types of Directors

You may have noticed that VUCA can make the challenge of answering tough questions all the more difficult for company leaders – especially as the hardest of what are known in Australia as “blowtorch-on-the-belly” questions tend to rise to the top.

These can include tough questions from clients, prospects, investors, suppliers, officials, journalists and members of your own team.

The good news about responding to enquiries amidst the challenges of VUCA is that there is a methodology for answering all tough questions.

This methodology is imparted within “Great Answers To Tough Questions” sessions run at MD2MD events where you get the opportunity to apply the methodology to the most challenging questions confronting you now – and the ones you can expect to face in the future.

This article gives some guidance about communicating effectively amidst VUCA.

But first, let’s go back to when VUCA was first identified as a recognisable modern challenge…

VUCA and the end of the cold war

The term VUCA came into being with the rapid changes at the end of the Cold War – symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – when all kinds of established certainties suddenly disappeared.

Being based as a foreign correspondent in Berlin in the immediate aftermath of communist domination of Eastern Europe, it meant that in the eye of this storm of VUCA there was a constant flow of extraordinary new events and developments on which to report.

Every day I would start with a plan of what to cover. But often there would be an unpredictable development that would alter the stories and interviews I’d initially set out to chase.

News always tends to be a bit haphazard and changeable, but in a time and place of VUCA, this pattern occurs more dramatically than usual.

All sorts of things were happening in and around the reuniting city of Berlin at once – a phenomenon you may find currently familiar in the UK and beyond.

As a German-based correspondent I observed first hand how the sudden end to the Cold War led to an outbreak of unexpected changes and trends which took off after the introduction of hard currency – then embodied in the Deutsche Mark – to East Germany ahead of formal political German reuinification.

Previously outlawed private businesses suddenly blossomed in the East – often with the injection of capital from West Germany and beyond.

The breakdown of the previous barriers enslosing Eastern European countries that had been enforced by communism led to the mass movement of suddenly liberated migrants across the continent.

I once ended up in a crazy situation in a refugee camp in East Germany where impoverished migrants, released from what had previously been the effective prison of Romania, flooded in after the overthrow of its hated communist dictator, Nicola Ceaușescu.

As a representative of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation visiting the camp with a German Romanian-speaking interpreter, I was feted as if being an ambassador for the entire Western World.

The excited refugees had even more questions for me than I had for them.

Not quite grasping that Australia wasn’t a member of the European Union, and not realising that foreign correspondents had a limit to their influence, the Romanian refugees begged me to allow them to join the European Economic Community, as it then was, on the spot.

It was surreal. But Post-Cold War VUCA threw up absurd situations then, as it does now.

Little did I know while surrounded by the deliriously optimistic Romanian refugees, who viewed membership of the EEC as being supremely precious, that I’d one day end up living in a country that would actually vote to leave what was to become the European Union.

But as we’ve seen, developments long since since the end of the Cold War have now created new levels of VUCA.

VUCA in 2019 and beyond

If there were an official VUCA Index, the United Kingdom’s jerky, cumbersome and seemingly never-ending departure from the European Union would certainly have raised it in 2019.

In line with VUCA, even the latest new Halloween Brexit date of 31 October 2019, could end up being earlier or later than that – or, at the time of writing, still may conceivably not happen at all.

One important aspect of communicating well in these VUCA times is to be as consistent as circumstances allow.

With the speed of communications in the digital age, what you said in the last hour, the last week and in the last decade often lives on in cyberspace.

The internet also makes it very easy for people to re-visit what you said before your latest statement – making the need for consistency in communications vital for your credibility.

When situations change wildly amidst the VUCA, your important business utterances need to be designed to withstand it.

Even though the time you may have to organise your communications on fast-moving situations is often pressured in the VUCA age, it’s nonetheless crucial to ensure that you plan, prepare and practice when there’s something important you and your organisation need to say.

This applies when you’re giving a presentation, answering questions, conversing in an internet hook-up, being interviewed by journalists or recording a social media video update on your mobile.

Communications guidance for the current VUCA age

So whether you’re communicating amidst VUCA about bad news – such as a sudden downturn in the market – or about good news – such as expansion plans to capitalise on new opportunities – here’s some further guidelines to consider:

* Pro-actively communicate with those who will be affected by your decisions early and often

* When you can’t answer a question, indicate briefly why you can’t, what you will do to come to grips with the issue and what you will do to get the answer and convey it when that becomes achievable

* Rather than say nothing when asked about a tricky topic – which can make you appear ignorant or nervy or devious – at the very least seek to convey the most useful message on the subject of the question. The wording “What I can say is…” is often particularly useful in cases where you can’t immediately give the precise information being sought.

* Don’t allow yourself to be a hostage to fortune over potentially changing circumstances after you’ve given your answer. A good way to do this is to ensure you include a caveat in your utterances where the facts or outlook could change. You can do this by inserting a line such as “According to the latest information which we’ve been able to ascertain, the situation is…” This means that if new information arises after your utterance you have protected yourself against the accusation of misleading your questioners.

* Seek to avoid making predictions or commitments on the run that you could come to regret. The best way to do this is to carry out that planning, preparation and practice ahead of important professional conversations so that you end up verbalising exactly what you set out to say, not what popped into your head under the pressure of the moment.

Rewards for mastering communication in the VUCA age

Even if Britain’s Brexit progress gets back on track, and even if/when Donald Trump is succeeded by a more consistent, predictable U.S. President, other VUCA factors can easily arise to take their place.

So it’s worth constantly honing your communication skills to make yourself as bombproof, effective and inspiring as possible when answering challenging questions in ongoing times of VUCA.

Some of the greatest rewards in the current VUCA period are set to flow to those who both make the best decisions and simultaneously perform the best while riding the challenging VUCA communications wave.

Written by MD2MD speaker Michael Dodd.