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VUCA Lessons For Agile

Project Uncertainty Bob Johansen author of “Get There Early: Sensing the Future to Compete in the Present” outlines the challenges of VUCA projects. VUCA is a military term used to describe environments characterized by:


In such environments standard Command-and-Control processes are not effective.

I recently attended a great presentation by Denise Caron who outlined Bob’s description of VUCA challenges and the new leadership models that lend themselves to these circumstances. Many of today’s software projects exhibit Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity and there are numerous parallels between agile leadership and the VUCA leadership model.

Low complexity, fixed targets and “knowable” problems can be solved with a Command-and-Control approach. Here careful upfront planning and then methodical execution pay dividends. However, projects with high complexity, moving targets and initially unclear end-goals cannot be planned in detail upfront and then simply executed. This is where the advantages agile approaches come into play gaining the benefits of adaption over a traditional “Plan-the-work, work-the-plan” approach.

Johansen brings some useful parallels to the agile model, focusing on the role of a leader when faced with a dilemma involving Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. He highlights a Foresight to Insight to Action cycle as shown next...

Foresight Insight Action 
Foresight is about recognizing the likelihood of ambiguity and realizing there may be no single, simple, solution; instead the need to tap into a variety of perspectives, perhaps via nontraditional networks. Insight is about exploring multiple options, seeing what works and gaining early feedback. Finally, Action is about execution of successful approaches, and delivery of the solution which may be quite different from what was originally anticipated.

This is similar to Dr Mike Aucoin’s recommendations for dealing with challenging projects from his book “Right-Brain Project Management". He calls them “stretch” projects since they stretch the bounds of traditional project management, but they are the same challenges as VUCA. In these environments Aucoin recommends augmenting with “right Brained” strategies.

"Right brained approaches are not a replacement for logical, analytical, left brained defined approaches, but instead complement these techniques with tools for handling ambiguity. These tools are:"

1. Find the compelling purpose
2. Make sense of the project
3. Experiment and adapt
4. Create the new reality
5. Develop and deliver trust
6. Improvise within the project framework
7. Leave a legacy


1) Find the compelling purpose – When we really want to do something, we will overcome any obstacle. The compelling purpose is driven by what is meaningful in a deep way. To find the compelling purpose, keep asking “why an objective is important” until an answer that resonates with our core principles is found. As PM’s we need to find why the project is so important that we will get people volunteering to work on it. How will it make us better, or improve service, capability or capacity?

2) Make sense of the project – At the beginning of a stretch project, we often have a vague idea of where we are going. We must first explore the project environment and make sense of it before we can exploit it. As PM’s it is important to identify what the project is really about before we start planning.

3) Experiment and adapt – When the path is ambiguous, it is counterproductive to expect to develop and follow a detailed plan. It is better to deliberately experiment and learn how to adapt to the environment. As PM’s we should demonstrate and encourage experimentation and adaptation within the project.

4) Create the new reality – Stretch projects require a high degree of creativity, not only in the professional domain, but in solving interactional issues among group members. As PM’s we need to engage the creative side of our team to tap into their full drive and overcome project challenges be them technical, HR, or business.

5) Develop and deliver trust – Agile techniques demand that we slash bureaucracy and expect all team members to take leadership roles appropriately. So much more can be accomplished with an atmosphere of trust. As PM’s we need to create an environment of trust so people know it is safe to fully contribute and not hold-back.

6) Improvise within the project framework - The stretch project requires us to develop new approaches to problems, but we must always operate within the framework of the compelling purpose and good team and customer service practices. As PM’s we need to encourage out-of-box thinking, but never lose sight of the box.

7) Leave a legacy – If a conventional project fulfills objectives, the right brain project seeks to leave a lasting, positive legacy. The ultimate deliverable is a good emotional memory – smiles on the faces of all who are involved with the project and its product. As PM’s we need to create and manage a positive emotional memory for the project. People are our best assets and ultimate determinators of success. The Sydney Opera House was 9 years late and 14 times over budget – a failure from a left brain project view, but a huge asset for Sydney that has a very positive emotional legacy.

These steps parallel Johansen’s recommendations for VUCA problems too. In a clever twist of language, the solution for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity is:

Vision – an intent that seeks to create a clear future state
Understanding – stop, look and listen to the characteristics at play
Clarity – make sense of the chaos
Agility – wirearchy (networking) is rewarded over hierarchy


The leadership approaches Johansen’s recommends in VUCA situations include:

• Flexible, decentralized, empowered networks within a structure of strategic intent
• Learning through immersive experiences, scenarios and rapid prototyping
• Acceptance of uncertainty with intuition as a valid contributor to clarity
• Strategic sense-making beyond operational problem solving
• Uncoupling “winning” from the need for a solution
• Engagement with complexity

These ideas seem familiar to those used to agile, but they go a little further.

What can we learn for Agile Leadership?

I think agile methods often miss Aucoin’s first two steps of: 1) Find the compelling purpose, 2) Make sense of the project, and VUCA’s concepts of Vision and Understanding.

We often rush too quickly to prioritized backlogs of requirements as stories or features and do not spend enough time on finding the compelling purpose, sense-making and search-for-understanding.

Agile has some good visioning tools:

  • Jim Highsmith offers the “Designing the product box” as an alignment and envisioning exercise.
  • Don Reinertsen describes the “Designing the product brochure description” exercise to create a common vision.
  • Luke Hohmann’s Innovation Games provide some more good examples “Remember the Future” and “Prune the Product Tree” can help us determine what success might look like for the project and where to focus effort. 

However these are really just tools, limited exercises, effectively games to help us have the right conversations with stakeholders. Where VUCA and Right Brained Project Management add value is in validating sense-making as a complete and necessary phase on every project that is characterized with uncertainty.

"...validating sense-making as a complete and necessary phase on every project that is characterized with uncertainty."

Recognizing we have uncertainty, but then using analytical, left-brain, list based story backlogs misses the benefits of building community through sense-making. Many agile methods don’t really have much guidance on the practical steps for sifting through the chaos. Atern’s Feasibility Assessment addresses this somewhat, but again it is with a traditional top-down, analytic focus.
Group based approaches that bring insight from other teams and “outsight” from social networks outside the organization frequently produce the best results. Yet empowering teams to seek out these solutions is often done under the radar of project process when really I believe it should be front and centre on the project approach.
The good news is that agile, VUCA, and Right Brain project approaches are all gaining momentum and moving in the same direction. Projects challenged by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity can be successfully delivered using shared leadership, iterative development, and adaptation. We will be seeing far more practical guidance on these approaches as the methods converge and spread. Until then I think it is useful to be aware of how project uncertainty is handled in different domains and see if we can borrow approaches that make sense.


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