The challenges we experience today as a society are different to those we experienced yesterday or those we will experience tomorrow.
As individuals we are confronted with a variety of global issues: the effects of climate change, an ageing population with limited amount of caretakers, political instability, the inequality between rich and poor, and the availability and protection of data. We witness our life-circumstances changing. Information on these global issues is piling up while we have limited influence as an individual. At the same time, we feel the pressure to fulfill certain expectations. We are challenged to find our personal role in a world characterised by Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity (VUCA).
In this fourth article, I would like to share how I handle the VUCA personality of our world so that it can become an asset rather than a liability. Generally speaking, there are always two things I can influence in a certain situation: How I interpret it and how I act upon it.
Volatility describes the nature and dynamics of changes; high volatility refers to quick and large changes. In a volatile situation we often ask ourselves “what is right way to handle this?” and “what is wrong way to handle this?”.
In my experience the most effective way to answer these questions is by returning to my personal values. Do my actions honour my values? Personally, I value the following: 1) safety for myself and my family, 2) connections with people, 3) recognition for what I do, and 4) freedom of choice.
These values act as my yardstick that I use to explore the different ways I can act upon a situation. With regards to the climate emergency the most important value I will act on to preserve is my family’s safety.
If there is too much uncertainty in a situation, feelings of fear may start to hijack rational thinking. Say, for example, my partner was supposed to arrive home 2 hours ago and they haven’t contacted me. I might start questioning myself “Did something happen/are they hurt?” or “Are they seeing someone else?”. Due to the lack of information, I cannot answer these questions and that scares me.
I live in Belgium, a country that exists slightly above sea-level. The extent to which the sea-level will rise is unknown as is the way in which my country will respond. As a consequence, I am terrified of even thinking of the future of the Netherlands in the climate breakdown. To prevent this fear from taking over, I try to stick to what is certain. Once I see clearly again, I can take an active stand and explore my possible actions.
A situation is deemed complex when we cannot recognise how different elements relate to each other, how they affect each other, and how they add up to the overall effect. On top of that, there is no clear pattern we have seen before or know about. Climate change is the most important complex situation we are currently confronted with.
The traditional approach to deal with a problem is to use the SAP method. SAP refers to 1) sensing what’s happening, 2) analysing the elements, and 3) planning our actions. In a situation of complexity, this approach is insufficient and we tend to get stuck on the analysis (A).
I would like to introduce the new and improved SIP method. SIP refers to 1) sensing with my physical senses, 2) using my intuition by listening to my gut and involving my heart, and 3) probing the situation by exploring, testing and searching with help of others and the intention to learn.
The new SIP-method does not include a planning step in the end as it is unclear when we have resolved the situation. The only thing we can do is to take one step at a time in the probing phase and see whether it has a positive effect.
A situation is ambiguous when it can be interpreted in many different ways. Depending on various factors, including culture, people define the same situation in a different way. For example, in Europe slurping soup is seen as rude while in China slurping is a way of appreciating the soup. Since the way a person acts on a situation is determined by their interpretation, someone else’s behaviour might shock us.
In the fight against global overheating, we were urged to separate the different sorts of waste to make recycling possible. But recently, experts have shifted to upcycling rather than the downcycling previously mentioned. Different options are available depending on the resource material and the objective. That makes the separation of waste ambiguous. In my experience, acknowledging and acceptancing the ambiguity of a situation helps me to prepare to be flexible in my responses.
The four characteristics of a VUCA world covered above are interrelated and often appear at the same time. I now know I can handle it by creating the mental space to host the ambiguity; by using the SIP method; by focusing on the certainties to avoid panic; and by using my personal values as a yardstick. With that in mind, I can consciously decide how to act to keep us safe.