The expression VUCA has been around for decades. And yet, it’s as relevant today in business as it was when first introduced in the 1980s by the US military. VUCA — which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity — describes an unpredictable workplace characterized by constant flux, unknowns and unknowables. It’s the new normal facing most leaders today.
It’s also the new normal facing most employees, who struggle daily to navigate the murkiness to deliver business results. But the murkiness doesn’t stop there. It extends into our relationship with career development, a feature of the business landscape that in many organizations has remained frozen in time and unresponsive to contemporary organizational realities.
Today’s VUCA workplace demands VUCA career development — an approach to growth that’s:
VUCA career development, while sounding daunting, actually boils down to small adjustments to the mindsets and behaviors of employees and leaders. Five shifts that can easily be incorporated into existing processes — and can lead to dramatically enhanced results — follow.
1. Habitualized reflection
The "one and done" career-planning approach from the past is insufficiently agile to accommodate today’s workplace. Employees must lead the way by developing the capacity for, and commitment to, constantly deepening their self-awareness. They must routinely challenge their understanding of themselves, their strengths, opportunities, interests and values. They must make it a conscious practice to consider more critically the world around them. This means intentionally prioritizing until they become habits such mental processes as connecting the dots among events, extracting lessons from challenges and failure, and updating their understanding of the unique value proposition they have to offer.
2. Ongoing conversation
As employees deepen their self-awareness and develop the reflection habit, it becomes incumbent upon leaders to tap this reservoir of information and insight. And tThis happens through conversation, but not the once-a-year organizationally-prescribed meeting. While that can be important, it can also become stale within weeks or months. What’s required is an ongoing dialogue, slipped right into the workflow and routine interactions. Short conversations about the employee, what’s going on in the organization and even broader industry and strategic trends offers tremendous benefits. It keeps career-development thinking fresh, is motivational and generates a deeper bond and greater loyalty between employees and leaders.
3. Penciled possibility planning
VUCA development is flexible, adaptable and fluid. As a result, career-development plans can no longer be cast in concrete with the expectation of an annual lifespan. Employees need to play out multiple possibilities concurrently, holding each lightly and being willing to change as necessary. Scenario planning is the name of the game. They need to mine the overlap among possible ways forward for highest-impact actions. And, they need to go where they’ve got energy and where there are greater chances for growth-related traction.
4. Commitment to high-impact actions
In days gone by, the output of a career-development plan was a highly structured game plan with prescribed steps and structured schedules. Not any longer! What’s required to respond to today’s changeable conditions is something nimbler and more iterative. Formal development opportunities like workshops, webinars and e-learning may not be flexible enough to meet turn-on-a-dime needs. As a result, employees and leaders may want to lean more heavily into informal or unstructured learning (which includes development experiences, mentoring, visibility, and networking) to offer spot or targeted high-impact actions that work within the employee’s (versus the organization’s) timeline.
5. Routine recognition and reinforcement
Let’s face it. Fitting development into already bursting-at-the-seams workloads can be challenging. It’s easy for employees to let their growth and learning take a backseat to more urgent concerns. That’s where leaders can play a valuable role. Catching people acting on their developmental intentions is inspiring. Acknowledging the acquisition of new skills or experiences is uplifting. Offering feedback, coaching or ideas on one’s efforts to expand capacity and contribution is motivating. When leaders do these things – when they pick up on cues and make recognition and reinforcement part of their cadence – they can accomplish all of this and more.
Careers exist in today’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment; but career development doesn’t have to be fall victim to these challenging conditions. In fact, these characteristics can actually offer tremendous opportunity for employees and leaders who are willing to make the process more versatile, uplifting, choice-filled and active by embracing these five shifts.