Another approach to problem-solving

Dec. 7, 2018
Decision-making used to have more a more simplified and straightforward process.

We are living in a world dominated by VUCA. What is VUCA? It stands for: Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. It’s a concept that helps define increasingly complex problems, and helps to assist with determining a solution.

I learned about this concept when I attended an educational session run by Barbara Taylor, an executive coach. The idea of VUCA originated at the U.S. Army War College to assess the world after the Cold War. While employed by the U.S. military for decades, only within the last two decades has it become a leadership strategy concept for businesses.

Overview of VUCA

The mix of the types of problems we face in the workplace has shifted, so the strategy to get to the solution also has to change. 

Taylor defined a VUCA world as being one where these descriptors dominate:

  • Volatility: Fast change happens without a clear, predictable trend or pattern. The duration of these trends or patterns is unknown, and the outcome is unexpected and unstable. Volatility is understandable, and you can gain knowledge from it, but it takes work.
  • Uncertainty: This refers to frequently disruptive changes. Additionally, the past is not a great predictor of the future. However, the basic cause and effect is known. Change is possible but not a given.
  • Complexity: The situation has many interconnected parts and variables. There are many moving parts, and the volume can be overwhelming to process.
  • Ambiguity: There is little clarity about what is real or true. The meaning and outcome of casual relationships are unclear. No precedent has been set, and we may be faced with “unknown unknowns.”

We are in a time of increasing VUCA. There have always been problems of all types within the commercial vehicle industry. For example, look back to discussions on diesel costs and the impact on fleet operating costs. This issue can be viewed as a VUCA problem.

Simpler times

Before the increase in VUCA, most issues could be viewed as puzzles.

In a puzzle, there is one best solution and the trick is to arrange the pieces or facts in the right order to solve the problem. Problems like fleet size, inventory levels and skills needed, for example, fit into this problem-solution model. Normal tools of leadership apply to helping resolve the problem, like project management, resource allocation or performance management. These are thought of as linear processes with a solution. The process will apply to all of your sites.

Puzzles exist in mainly a stable environment. To have a puzzle, the desired outcome cannot change and the pieces can’t change, or the puzzle won’t work.

Addressing more complex problems

As VUCA increases, using puzzle-solving techniques becomes more irrelevant. 

The new problems we are facing are not problems at all in the conventional sense. They are more like paradoxes or dilemmas. Take the problem of employee retention. On one hand, it is known an empowered workforce is more stable and more productive. On the other hand, companies are requiring more and better control. Rather than a traditional puzzle, the solution requires the acceptance of both of these issues.

Building muscle in solving these higher VUCA problems involves thinking in terms of A and B rather than A or B. Here are some dilemmas we face every day. The solution is to accept both outcomes:

  • Frankness AND diplomacy
  • Responsibility AND freedom
  • Guidance AND tolerance
  • Confidence AND humility
  • Critical analysis AND encouragement
  • Control AND empowerment
  • Grounded AND visionary
  • Structure AND flexibility
  • Logic AND creativity
  • Individual AND work group
  • Planning AND implementation
  • Decisiveness AND mindfulness

Most people are great linear thinkers and can take action to solve a puzzle-type problem. But, many become unmoored when the problems keep morphing into these complex, no-win, high-volatility situations.

To address these complex VUCA problems, it is important to:

  • See it: Become aware that you are dealing with a dilemma
  • Map it: Articulate the polarities of the dilemma, e.g. the need for control AND the need for empowerment/autonomy/freedom to act
  • Finally, shift the question we ask to include both:
  • How do we have confidence AND humility?
  • How can we improve controls by improving empowerment?

How are the decisions you make for the business changing? Are you in a high VUCA situation? If so, there will be more of this. It is important to acknowledge that it exists, and implement strategies to address these problems.

Joel Levitt is the president of the Springfield Resources, a management consulting firm that services a variety of clients on a wide range of maintenance issues. Levitt has trained more than 17,000 maintenance leaders from more than 3,000 organizations in 24 countries. He is also the creator of Laser-Focused Training, a flexible training program that provides specific targeted training on your schedule, online to one to 250 people in maintenance management, asset management and reliability.  

About the Author

Joel Levitt | President, Springfield Resources

Joel Levitt has trained more than 17,000 maintenance leaders from more than 3,000 organizations in 24 countries. He is the president of Springfield Resources, a management consulting firm that services a variety of clients on a wide range of maintenance issues www.maintenancetraining.com. He is also the designer of Laser-Focused Training, a flexible training program that provides specific targeted training on your schedule, online to one to 250 people in maintenance management, asset management and reliability.  

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