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BoK7: Project-based working in a ‘VUCA’ world

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One of the popular management acronyms of recent years is VUCA. Coined by the US military after the end of the Cold War to explain the changing political landscape, it has since become widely used in all aspects of profit and not-for-profit business.  

There is a difference of opinion about whether VUCA – Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity – is a ‘catch-all’ phenomena used to describe a fast-paced, changing world, or whether the four elements of VUCA warrant definitions that separate the V, from the U, C and A.

Our position as APM Body of Knowledge 7 editors is that VUCA is most usefully seen as a way of describing that the context for many project is ‘messy’.

We understand that it is tempting when writing books, teaching or selling products and services to differentiate one thing from another, e.g. programmes deal with the VUCA world and projects do not (we don’t agree with this by the way!).

We also understand that there are valid differences in definition between V, U, C and A, but we also argue that there are other words that equally sum up the ‘VUCA world’ phenomena, e.g. emergence or disruption.

So, in APM Body of Knowledge 7 we are not intending to create an oversimplified model of the VUCA world, based on neat but disputable definitions, or resorting to a 2 x 2 matrix as some do (including the Harvard Business Review article from 2013 written by Bennett and Lemoine).

Rather we offer a point of view that for the chartered profession black and white rules are not that useful and what we need professionals to do is to think about how to navigate a messy (some would say VUCA) context for projects, programmes and portfolios in a more nuanced, less prescriptive way – acknowledging that our rationality is bounded and our ability to predict with certainty is largely a delusion.

Rather than our project-based work being a route march – ordered and predictable – it’s a dance – there is guidance about how to do it, but we need to interpret and adapt to be successful.

We do have APM Body of Knowledge 7 topics associated with uncertainty, risk and complexity. We also have topics associated with working in a way that enables adaptability. Designing approaches to enable short feedback loops, ‘failing fast’, iteration, and building in resilience are all entirely relevant to modern day management by projects. We aim to reflect this in our crafting of the final structure for APM Body of Knowledge 7 and the content of each chapter, section and topic.

If you have different views of how you would (or would not) refer to VUCA in the seventh edition of APM Body of Knowledge, please let us know through the online consultation. It closes on Friday 20 April but there is still time to have your say on this or any other aspect of the proposed structure.

Last chance to apply to be a writer for BoK. Applications close on the 20th too.

Previous blogs in this series

BoK 7: What to do about PMOs?

Bok7: Why include megaprojects?

Bok 7: What do we mean by social systems?


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  1. Ian Heptinstall
    Ian Heptinstall 20 April 2018, 03:34 PM

    Great to see the issue of VUCA, as a general idea, being raise to the fore Ruth. It seems to me that a great many of the difficulties encountered by project managers and project teams today are driven by the unsuitability of many methods we use for real-world VUCA conditions. Looking forward to BOK7 taking a world-leading step towards helping the profession not only be aware of VUCA, but to know which tools help, and which don't.