Leading In Complex Times. From VUCA to Complexity

Helio Borges
4 min readAug 26, 2019
Photo: Shutterstock

Managers are not confronted with problems that are independent of each other, but with dynamic situations that consist of complex systems of changing problems that interact with each other. I call such situations messes. . . . Managers do not solve problems, they manage messes. Russell Ackoff.

Is VUCA a Mirage?

VUCA is an acronym for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. It is referred mostly to the challenges that manifest in different aspects of our lives and works, like the environment, the economy, politics, race, regional conflicts and so on. Moreover, elements that were designed to make our lives easier and better, like the Internet and computer technology, have had the unintended effect of introducing serious disruptions that have a direct negative effect on us.

One example is the selling of personal data by Google and Facebook to shady organizations that have used it to interfere and in some cases decide political processes. As Shoshana Zuboff, the author of “The Age Of Surveillance Capitalism” said to Otto Scharmer in the latest Dialogues in Transforming Capitalism, “Surveillance capitalists move in a new kind of marketplace that sells predictions that are about us, but not for us…, they could only get that information if they secretly took it, captured it, stole it.” Those and other technological advances have intensified and magnified the sensation of volatility, uncertainty, and ambiguity felt by people and organizations.

I believe that variability, uncertainty, and ambiguity, are sensations, sort of mirages and reflections of the real thing. The reality is that we live in a complex world, consequently, if we are going to face our challenges successfully we can’t afford to do shadow boxing; we have to hit the real thing. How?

By getting away from the concept of a VUCA world, and focusing instead on the “C” world — the world of “Complexity”.

The “Complex” World

Dr. Joanna Boehnert, Lecturer in Design and the Creative Industries of Loughborough University and fellow of CECAN, has been working on providing a definition, examples, and a simple diagram to visualize a range of complexity concepts, in that research, she identifies, defines and illustrates 16 key features of complex systems and contributes to a visual language of complexity, she named it “The Visual Representation of Complexity”.

Those Characteristics are:

For the information shown above it becomes clear that…

…when we dive into the “C” world, we realize that the challenges that we face, as human beings and organizations, are not just variable, uncertain and ambiguous, they are much more profound and complex than that.

Consequently, we need to stop solving problems as we are doing now and begin to understand how to lead in complex systems times. For that, we need to build new leadership competencies.

Next article:

Leading in Complex Times. The Blind Spot of Leadership



Helio Borges

Executive & Team Coach & Mentor. Cultural Transformation Change Agent & Consultant. Twitter: @hborgesg. Instagram: @heboga. FB: helio.borges.35. Uriji: @hborges