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7 Steps to thrive in a VUCA world

Great article by Professor Clive Smallman 


It’s not widely known, but the proverb ‘may you live in interesting times’ is a curse. And at the moment life certainly feels ill-fated. The coronavirus pandemic has impacted the working lives of many, with jobs lost and others threatened. Those who feel threatened want badly to secure their current position. For others, the period of instability presents an opportunity for them to fast-track their careers, especially as we emerge out of the crisis.

The epidemic, as is the case with any business interruption, also brings into sharper focus more common desires and frustrations in work and business:

  • Some people working from home have discovered just how much they enjoy the freedom of not being tethered to a physical office with their supervisor able to look over their shoulders. This autonomy has led some to question why don’t they just work for themselves? For others, it reinforces a long-held desire to run their own business.
  • Other folks, seeing how their employers have coped (or not) simply reinforces their desire to find a new job.
  • Any business crisis tends to open up faults and constraints, magnifying performance shortfalls; they also increase the probability that change projects fail.

The question is, what to do about those desires in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) times? 


Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity seem to be at their maximum just now. The question running through politics, business and society is what shape is the recovery going to take?

Will it take, as many of the world’s leading economies hope, a sharp ‘V’ shape? If it’s going to follow a ‘U’ shaped path, how long will we be at the bottom? Might it be a dreaded, drawn-out ‘S’ shape? It’s difficult to predict, although a ‘U’ shaped recovery with a relatively short ‘bottom’ seems most likely.

That’s economics. A social network colleague thinks we’re in ‘K’ shape already. The first downward stroke has seen many businesses close up shop already. As we dive further into recession, the lower leg of the K represents businesses and individuals who will also fail or give up. The upper limb of the K represents those taking a fast track to the new normal, looking for opportunities, driven by the desires or frustrations outlined above.

So, how do we get onto that upward leg of the ‘K’?


This may seem cliché, but nothing happens until you decide to change. 

You need to decide if you’re ready to change your position or your business. Whatever the opportunity or risk you see, only you have the right to choose how you react to the hand you think you’ve been dealt; you need to choose wisely.

If you don’t change and do what you’ve always done, with things the way they are now, you won’t get what you’ve always had. It’s more likely you’ll get far less.

If you choose to change what you do, you will change what you get. It’s a matter of deciding to change, to transform.


Transforming your professional self or your business or setting up a new business follows a similar path up six steps. Progress up the steps isn’t always linear; we need to shuttle backwards and forwards between steps to develop a coherent transformational route. It’s about how you ask six ‘golden’ questions: what, how, where, who, why and when?

Step 1: Understanding Your Business

Our business position or our professional position is where our business or we sit relative to opportunities or threats, as well as our strengths or weaknesses. Yes, SWOT analysis is alive and well, but how to do it has evolved. Now it’s common to use business model canvases to assess business and personal positioning, as well as a personal resources canvas. Business models build off cost drivers (the business building blocks used in producing or supplying) and revenue dynamics (the business building blocks that generate sales). I walk through this in Release: Integrating Personal and Professional Performance in a Life Unleashed, and its accompanying workbook, which you can get from my website.

Step 2: Mapping Desired Change

We map changes against whichever business model canvas we’ve used and against a newly identified purpose. Mapping consists of applying one of four actions to the building blocks that comprise our business model or personal business model: what cost drivers can you eliminate or reduce; and what revenue dynamics can your raise or create?

Step 3: Understanding Your Target Market

At the core of your transformational journey lies empathic understanding with your customer:

  1.    What are their pains? What are their anxieties, fears and frustrations? 
  2.    What are their desired gains? What are their dreams, needs, hopes and wants?
  3.    What else is or might be triggering their behaviours?

Establishing this knowledge enables the construction of clear value propositions.

Step 4: Creating Stakeholder Value through Innovation

Suppressing costs and increasing value in your business or demonstrating how you can do so for an employer is about creating stakeholder value; what’s known in the jargon as value innovation. The question is, how far do you want to push?

If you want to tick over and increment your business’s performance or you own performance in increments, that might not cut it as we turn out of the current crisis (or indeed when a future challenge occurs). 

If you want to push into other segments, you have to change the structure of the business or what it is that you do.

A substantial change in your business model or personal model, while serving the same stakeholders is disruptive. Going further and including new stakeholders or customers is radical.

Here and now, and in the foreseeable future, the changes we face mean that disruption or radicalisation is likely where we need to go.

Step 5: Identifying Constraints and Opportunities

As we begin implementation, we need to find the barriers to success and factors that further leverage it. By focusing on constraints, we ease friction as we innovate and change. Our actions are also accelerated as we exploit opportunities presented to us or which we seek out.

The identification and resolution of constraints, as well as leveraging opportunities, increases inertia, accelerating transformation.

Step 6: Creating Impact

Purposeful change impacts you or your business structurally, disruptively or radically; it is transformative. Incremental change has a lesser impact.


There are many ways to approach the six steps. You could, as the saying goes “just do it” but that discounts or ignore issues. A successful transformation has three crucial enablers: structure (a purposeful and planned set of activities); a bias for action; and accountability.

Structure gives strong implementation intent; if you write something down, it’s much more likely to happen than if you don’t have a plan.

A bias for action means that taking purposeful action is your default state. When you are biased to act, not doing things is what takes a decision; you automatically do something. It is about focused execution fuelled by energy and enthusiasm: the thrill of getting things done.

Accountability acknowledges the fact that your word is rarely not your bond when you give it to yourself. The most common and singular point of failure in embarking on business or personal change is accountability. If you’re trying to achieve anything that changes your business or your professional performance, accountability doesn’t guarantee success; you are, after all, responsible for your actions and choices. What is 90% assured is the likelihood that you will fail if you don’t discuss your progress and the reasons for successes and failures with one or more independent people interested in the outcomes you want.

Do you want to

  •    Improve your employment prospects?
  •    Develop a strategy to create, transform or grow your own business?
  •    Change your job, reinforce your current position or fast-track your career?
  •    Improve performance?
  •    Assure that change management is effective?

If so, you should be seeking a means to transform, following the six steps in one way or another.

One of the best ways to develop a successful transformation is to follow an appropriate and carefully designed programme of knowledge and skills development that is personalised to you and your problems. The planned programme should include close networks of people tackling similar challenges or having similar desires or needs and led by an experienced mentor. The programme leader should have not just an in-depth knowledge of business and life but the experience of transforming leaders, business and life. 

Programmes such as these often lack genuine connections to the real world. Many people who lead them don’t have the life experiences and will rarely walk through challenges with you. A few celebrate your achievements with an accredited award; many do not.

Seek out someone who invites you to a personalised transformation that will work for you, celebrated appropriately.

Posted on June 9, 2020

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