VUCA and Strange Attractors

VUCA is a term borrowed from the military via the Army War College. VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity and represents how military leaders see much of today’s world. I suggest that in our terms, VUCA are all attributes of complex adaptive systems. According to the National Defense University description, the “C” in VUCA sounds more like what we would call complicated since it stems from the interdependency of our choices (complicated) and not interdependency of actors (complexity). Nonetheless, I think they are on the right track toward leading in complexity. The caution is that some might incorrectly believe that we can reduce VUCA if we only had more accurate information. Complexity theory would tell us that no matter how much information we have, we still cannot reduce VUCA nor predict the future with increased accuracy. 

A fewf weeks ago I listened to Bob Johansen discuss VUCA at the NeuroLeadership Summit in San Francisco. He has taken the negative side of VUCA and turned it around to explain what he sees as effective leadership in a VUCA world. As he puts it:

  • Volatility leads to Vision
  • Uncertainty leads to Understanding
  • Complexity leads to Clarity
  • Ambiguity leads to Agility

(Johansen, 2009, p. 6)

Johansen talked about the need for clarity (knowing where you are going) while remaining agile and moderating your certainty. In other words, effective leaders need to know the what while keeping the how open. As Johansen said, “We need clarity about the future, we want certainty.” (Johansen & Burton, 2011)

Certainty is not related to absolute knowledge of the world. Instead certainty, as we are learning from neuroscience, is a deceptive mental state:

“Despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of knowing we know arise out of involuntary brain mechanisms that, like love an anger, function independently of reason.”   (Burton, 2008)

Putting certainty aside, why is clarity better? What is happening when we get clarity? As I listened to Johansen’s talk, I was reminded of the story Karl Weick (1995, p. 54) tells about a small Hungarian military unit lost in a snowstorm in the Swiss Alps. As the story goes, the group was lost until one person found a map in their pocket. They waited the storm out and with the help of the map, found their bearings and made their way back to camp. After saving themselves, an inspection of the map found it not to be a map of the Alps after all but a map of the Pyrenees. The map, though wrong, provided enough clarity to create coordinated action – they started to move in a definite direction – and with enough adaptability, they found their way back.

In complex adaptive systems language, clarity creates a strange attractor that in turn creates action. Even if the action is ultimately in the wrong direction or for the wrong reasons, clarity gets people moving. If clarity is not matched with agility or adaptability, then there is a danger of ending up in a bad place. This is perhaps where strategic planning often goes awry. Leaders either believe they need to have certainty before moving (analysis paralysis) or they believe they do have certainty (delusion) and they stick with the plan even though the world changes around them.

I assert that vision and understanding are also forms of strange attractors which can create coordinated action. Like clarity, these need not turn out to be ‘true’ to be useful. Not that any old vision will do. We seem to need some positive emotion of a vision in order to create movement. Vision, understanding, and clarity only need to create some action and then the group or organization can learn and adapt its way into a better future.

Burton, R. A. (2008). On being certain : believing you are right even when you’re not (1st ed.). New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Johansen, R. (2009). Leaders make the future : ten new leadership skills for an uncertain world (1st ed.). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Johansen, R., Burton, R. (2011) Why it is hard to think about the future & how to do it better., Presentation at the NeuroLeadership Summit, San Francisco.

Weick, K. (1995). Sensemaking in organizations. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.



  1. VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. This reminds me of our discussions about the “Dancing Environment.” You can’t control what is going to happen, only influence the results. In this type of environment, accurate information (or intelligence) and infromation exchange is critical. Just as important is agility since you have to react quickly. Depending on the stakes (e.g. survival, free market access, etc.), one should have cerain courses of action (COAs) mapped out and, if possible, exercised or gamed-out. The success of certain special operation scenarios is rehearsed repeatedly, but the outcomes are never certain. There is always an element of risk. The level of risk one can tolerate will depend on the potential pay-off. An example is the current state of affairs being played out in the Straits of Hormuz.

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