Coaching Leaders in a VUCA World – P1 Peer Learning Event

Polling day in the US elections is perhaps a fitting time to report on our meeting last week, when a crack squad of executive coaches assembled in Euston to reflect on the way we, and the leaders we coach, frame the challenges that they face.

In a world of increased Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity (VUCA), the ability to diagnose the type of problem is arguably central to the leadership characteristic that is needed to address it. A complimentary framework of CUCA (Change, Uncertainty, Complexity and Anxiety) was also put forward, which perhaps gives a more emotional slant on the environment we live and work in.

To help navigate this Jonathan presented the Cynefin framework that is so well set out by Snowden & Boone in their HBR article Sometimes a messy flipchart tells a thousand powerpoints, so here’s Jonathan’s analogue rendition, with some builds on the original model:


Key reflections from the model and the group discussion included………..

  • Diagnosing the problem correctly is the starting point and leads to the correct order of primary actions.
  • Simple problems ie low stock levels reduce sales, are ordered and predictable, and require sensing, categorising and responding – in that order.
  • Complicated problems still lie on the ordered and predictable side of the model, but require expert input, for example a mechanic using years of experience to spot what a particular sound in an engine means. This requires sensing, analysis and then action.
  • Complex problems lie on the unpredictable side of the model and require systems understanding to perceive the interlinked players that may come from left field to make the system keep evolving and influence outcomes. The environment, rapidly changing markets and our political sphere all arguably come into this category. This requires probing with small experiments to understand and sense, as a necessary prelude to acting and responding.
  • Chaotic situations, such as a public order or disasters, require rapid action first, whilst continuing to sense and respond in the time that follows.

Key intervention points for coaches include

  • A leader may be excellently equipped to respond to one type of situation but less so others. For example, some struggle to be assertive enough in conflict situations that may be typical in chaos. Others may take longer to come to decisions when speed is key. A recent client has described his frustration at working in a more complex public sector environment, when his previous company was faster and more decisive.
  • This can often lead to leader misdiagnosis of the sort of problem they are facing – they can be drawn to view the problems through their own favourite set of developmental lenses.
  • Thus in Leadership Development Framework (LDF) terms, conventional frames such as Expert and Achiever work well in early chaos, simple, and complicated situations. Whereas later post conventional frames of strategist and beyond work better in complex and VUCA environments which we see more and more of today.
  • In P1’s ART of Performance ( terms, complex situations particularly require the ability to see multiple perspectives (Think & Relate), to work with others to set up the Probes or experiments, and then to Act decisively and with agility to carry out the required strategy.

The final part of our morning asked coaches to reflect on what sort of coach these Cynefin or VUCA domains asked them to be, for myself it asks me to hold the widest possible strategic frame for my clients, to consider how they can influence perhaps beyond their normal belief about their sphere of operation.

If you coach within your role, what thoughts does the VUCA, Cynefin framework stimulate in you?

William Winstone

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