The term VUCA is being used more and more often to describe challenges we face in both professional and personal life. VUCA stands for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. It reflects the fact that, as technology has improved and we live closer together, our world has become faster and more inter-connected, leading to a new level of difficulty that most people have not had to face before. Methods that have worked in the past to address less difficult situations simply are not sufficient anymore.

VUCA means that there are more moving parts in a situation, many of which are moving at the same time. The more long-term a situation is, and the more people and organizations involved, the more volatile and uncertain things will be. VUCA situations push us to the limits of our tolerance for not knowing, and therefore, not being able to plan and control for all contingencies.  As we’re pushed to the limit of our ability to handle the discomfort all this generates, we find we need to do things differently:  either we shut down and block out important dimensions of our challenges, and typically don’t address them successfully… or we need to develop greater capacity to handle the discomfort that VUCA creates, so we can stay open and not neglect important elements of the situation. To handle all of this, we need to see the bigger system, acknowledge our current thinking, shift our perspectives to a broader context, and experiment to see what works and what doesn’t work, then adapt based on what we learn. Ultimately, to address such situations, we find we need to manage it over time, not solve it once and for all.

Later Stage Leadership is dedicated to helping organizations and leaders develop greater capacity to stay open in the face of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, in order to address their challenges more successfully and lead others to be able to contribute to them effectively.  As a shorthand, we will use the term “Complexity” as referring to situations with many different dimensions, many simultaneously changing variables, many different players with different priorities, and situations that extend a relatively long time into the future, that as a result, generate a significant amount of uncertainty and paradox that need to be addressed. Such challenges are rarely resolved once and for all; rather they need to be managed over time, and as such, need to be viewed and handled differently than situations that can be addressed through problem-solving.

Through our work together, organizations and leaders will expand their capacity to stay open in the face of the discomfort Complexity produces, and as a result, be better able to address complex challenges over the long term.

The Gemstone Complexity Process TM

The Gemstone Complexity Process TM is a facilitated approach to help teams successfully address complex challenges. It involves seeing the bigger system in which the challenge exists, clarifying the outcomes to be achieved, breaking it down into manageable parts, and interweaving them back together to create an integrated approach to managing that system over time. This process helps leaders and teams step back and see the big picture, and then dive in to address the multiple moving dimensions, while avoiding becoming overwhelmed by the complexity.

Complex challenges are those that:  (i) resist once-and-for-all solutions; (ii) have many different dimensions; (iii) have many moving parts that vary at the same time; (iv) involve many people with different perspectives and priorities; and (v) can use up a lot of human and financial resources without creating desired results, i.e., a lot of heat with little light.

Addressing complex challenges is an iterative process, one that can be best managed through a series of well-defined steps. These steps are aimed at naming the many different dimensions of the challenge and revealing previously unidentified ways of seeing the situation that can then be addressed head on.

The steps for addressing complex challenges include:

  1. Critical Concepts :  Understand foundational concepts that help think differently about the challenge – concepts include The Thinking Path ; Deconstructing Limiting Beliefs; Competing Commitments and Immunity to Change ; Adaptive Challenges; the distinction between Complicated and Complex challenges; Systems Thinking & Polarities; and living in uncertainty.
  2. The Desired State :  Name the tension that is causing discomfort, anxiety, concern, and/or fear and become more familiar with what it is, how it impacts the organization, and what the desired state would be. Describe the conditions that need to be created for stakeholders, customers, management, employees, and the organization as a whole for the desired state to be realized.
  3. See the System :  Step back and see the bigger system that is operating. Identify the many different dimensions of the challenge – these are the “facets” that make up the complex challenge that is the “gemstone”.  Prioritize the “facets” to form a manageable strategy for exploring and addressing them.
  4. Reveal Limiting Beliefs :  Beginning with the highest priority “facets”, explicitly state the current thinking about what is believed to be “true” about them, and identify ungrounded assumptions and limiting beliefs. Identify competing commitments that people may be holding onto that prevent new ways of seeing. Use the revealed thinking to identify polarities that are operating that can be leveraged.
  5. Explore New Questions :  Take different perspectives to ask new questions about the “facets”, to explore what would like to be known that is currently not known with certainty, and proposing alternatives to limiting thinking.  Stages of mental complexity are used to identify new questions that have not been considered before.
  6. Hypothesize :  Form hypotheses about the high-priority facets that need to be tested before forming conclusions about how to address them, and develop a strategy for testing them.
  7. Experiment :  Design and execute experiments to test the hypotheses and formulate new thinking about them, forming new beliefs that are reliable for moving forward.
  8. Assess and adapt :  Step back and observe the results of experiments to learn from them about what does and does not work. Assess status using indicators that show whether experiments have moved the situation in the desired direction, and make changes to repeat the cycle as needed to adapt and begin the next round in this iterative process.

This process will enable the team to establish a system for managing the complexity, including assessing regularly how well the system is working.  These steps may be conducted sequentially, however they usually circle back throughout the process in a non-linear fashion. Ultimately, the process is complete when there is a system in place to manage the original tension in a way that is constructive for achieving overarching objectives for the organization and that is designed to adapt over time.

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