3 questions to lead well in complexity

How can we make good decisions in the faster, more complex contexts in which we live and work?

3 questions to lead well in complexity

How can we make good decisions in the faster, more complex contexts in which we live and work?

How can we make good decisions in the faster, more complex contexts in which we live and work?


You may have heard the of the acronym ‘VUCA’. It was first used in 1987 at the US Army War College in 1987 to describe the context of strategic leadership as being Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous. But whilst it may have originated to describe leading in military contexts, I reckon it’s now here, there and everywhere – the contexts that we live and lead in are certainly more complex, more uncertain, more ambiguous and more volatile.

I heard the other day that there’s been an additional A added to VUCA – from VUCA to VUCAA – and that additional A is for Accelerating. This certainly reflects my experience – that the other four factors of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity are happening faster and faster. I know that’s what I’m seeing and feeling. Maybe you are too?

And the thing is, it’s not just happening in workplaces. It’s happening in our lives at home. It’s happening in our social worlds. It’s happening with the people to whom we’re most closely connected – partners, family, friends, colleagues. Which means we’ve got layers and layers of it and we’re feeling the impact in exhaustion, cynicism and overwhelm.

I’ve found one tool particularly helpful in unravelling the impact of this VUCAA environment – when you’re really feeling the impact of everything that’s going on and you feel like you’ve got spaghetti in your brain. I’ve used it myself, and to help leaders and teams move from burnout to break through.

And it comes down to three questions.

The first question is, as I think about what’s going on for me right now,  what can I control?
And the reality is, the only thing you can really control is yourself. What are you thinking? What are you saying? What are you doing? How are you responding?

The second question is,  what can I influence?   Because there are things that even though we might not have 100% control over them – they’re not directly related to us – but we do still have some influence over them. So maybe there are agenda items you can put forward for a meeting, maybe you can choose to ask a different question of someone; perhaps you can initiate a conversation or put forward a white paper. What are the things that you can do that can influence the situation that you’re feeling a bit frustrated with right now?

The third question is, what can I not control? The challenge is that these are often the things that we feel most energy around, that we’re most frustrated with, that we’re most stuck on. They become a black pit for our energy, our attention, and our focus, which why they’re also the things that make and keep us fragile. Because if we continue to focus on them, they create burnout in us over a longer period of time.

So the question here is not just what can’t I control, but can I learn to accept it?

And you know what? I reckon this could be the hardest work to be done with these questions, because this asks use to let go of or adjust our expectations and face the reality of the situation in front of us.

So let’s recap. You’re feeling frustrated about something. There’s a lot of VUCAA in your world. First question, what can I control? The answer is you. What are you thinking? What are you doing? What are you asking? What are you responding to?

Second question, what can I influence? And here, it’s smart to think about your degree of influence. Is it high, medium or low? Because if you’ve got something that’s low influence, just understand it might take a longer time for you to achieve the outcome you’re looking for.

And the third question? What can’t I control? And can I accept that?

Once you’ve answered the three questions, you can take a look at your responses and assess what good looks like for your next steps. Prioritising what you can control (you) and what you most highly influence will help build a sense of progress and confidence as you face the challenges and leverage the opportunities now and in the future.

And that’s one way to navigate our VUCAA reality, exceptionally.

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