How to carry a project through VUCA chaos

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Some environments will always be chaotic and unordered. There’s nothing you can do as a project manager that will be able to change that. These environments are described as VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity), and they are rarely predictable.

The term VUCA environment dates back to the late 80s. It was coined by the US Army War College to describe the state of the world at the end of the Cold War. It has since been adopted by businesses to describe difficult and chaotic working environments.

Carole Osterweil, director of Visible Dynamics and author of Project Delivery, Uncertainty And Neuroscience, has experience of VUCA environments. She recalls a project she can’t name for confidentiality reasons (she dubs it Project 2020) as an example of how VUCA environments can knock a project off the rails.

“The Project 2020 team members were talented, experienced and highly motivated individuals charged with delivering ambitious objectives amid relentless and demanding conditions...They knew that VUCA environments do not conform to expectations. But this knowledge was not enough. They still got stuck and frustrated, and often they could not put a finger on what was going wrong or why.”

Labelling a problem

The Project 2020 team had a bit of a breakthrough when a consultant labelled their environment as ‘unordered’ based on the work of complexity theorists Cynthia Kurtz and Dave Snowden.

“In unordered environments, so much is changing on so many fronts that it seems impossible to keep up, let alone influence the way forward,” Osterweil explains. “The way to thrive is to recognise that the lack of order is not a matter of poor investigation, inadequate resources or lack of understanding. It is simply a characteristic of a complex system at work. What’s more, the lack of order is not necessarily a bad thing or a problem that could be solved if someone else would only set their mind to it.”

Accepting the chaos

This was a huge weight off the team’s shoulders. They could acknowledge that there was no changing the environment that they were working in. They revised their baseline assumptions based on that knowledge. Usually, the team aimed to create certainty across the board, but in this VUCA environment, it would never pay off. “The notion of an unordered environment opened the way for a very different approach that ultimately led to a successful outcome,” says Osterweil.

It provided a new frame of reference to help the 2020 team make sense of the situation they found themselves in. The sense of chaos reflected the state of the system; it was not caused by their inability to lead or control. On an emotional level, it also created a sense of psychological safety: “It enabled team members to speak for the first time about how stressful and difficult things were. They could now admit that things felt chaotic without fear of being the only person who thought the project was going off the rails. And they could speak this truth without fear of being embarrassed, punished or rejected for speaking up.”

Asking tough questions    

The Project 2020 team were asked deliberately provocative questions such as if they had ever seen a construction site in Hong Kong where skyscrapers are built with bamboo scaffolding. Were they over-engineering the monitoring systems to create the equivalent of rigid steel scaffolding, when what they really needed was the flexibility provided by bamboo poles?

“Once the team stepped back and saw the social dynamics driving their behaviour, they were able to see how anxiety was contributing to the situation,” says Osterweil. “Equipped with this knowledge, it was a short step to appropriate action.

“Understanding how the human brain works and why we behave as we do is a powerful staging post on the journey to becoming a project leader. It is possible to see projects as social systems and offer tools to create psychological safety. This helps to keep anxiety – ours and others’ – in check, and creates the clarity to separate the ordered aspects of a project from the unordered.”

Carole Osterweil tells the full story of Project 2020 in the spring edition of Project journal, which is free for APM members.

Image: riedjal/

Mark Rowland

Posted by Mark Rowland on 7th Jun 2019

About the Author

Mark Rowland is a senior writer on the Project editorial team. He has worked as a business journalist and editor for 15 years, and has won awards for his writing and editing. He has also worked in project and product management, overseeing the launch and continuous development of new websites and publications. Project is the official journal of the Association for Project Management (APM).

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