November 23, 2017

Leading Though VUCA Times | Leading from the Library

Steven BellIt can be hard enough to lead when outcomes are clear and the path to achieving them is relatively smooth. The real test is leading followers through times of ambiguity and uncertainty.

Julia Landauer is a race car driver. She has an ultimate goal: Be a winning professional race car driver. Stockton Rush is an entrepreneur explorer. He has an ultimate goal: Build, own, and manage the most advance privately owned minisub in the world. There’s one big problem that both Landauer and Rush face, and it’s what they have in common: There are endless obstacles and uncertainties that litter their paths to achieving a successful outcome. Landauer has incredible talent, but race car driving is a male-dominated profession that requires extreme financial support. Rush is trying to do something that even few government-backed projects have accomplished—and he wants to make deep sea exploration a tourist business. If either were to be asked, “Do you know exactly how you will achieve your outcome?” they could no doubt share a vision. Specifics though? Less likely, because there are many unknown variables: funding questions, technology challenges, competitor interference, etc. To succeed, Landauer, Rush, and library leaders alike need to cope with considerable ambiguity. So when library leaders think BHAG (which stands for big, hairy, audacious goal) they are venturing into VUCA territory. Given the rapid change and uncertainty that increasingly characterizes our world, VUCA has earned a place in contemporary leadership vocabulary. It stands for “Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.”  What can leaders do to successfully navigate and bring their vision to fruition?

It’s a VUCA world

This is by no means just a library leadership issue. Moving forward, leaders and followers must find ways to adapt to situations where the outcomes are far from certain. For leaders, the challenge is twofold. First, they must make sense of this new environment and determine how to move the organization in the right direction despite lacking clarity. Second, to have any hope of success, leaders must clearly articulate to would-be followers why they should grasp and support the leader’s vision. Having been both the leader and follower, I grasp that front-line library staff rightfully expect to know exactly how a proposed change will affect their roles and responsibilities. Leaders have a responsibility to provide full transparency when possible. When they are unable to do so, we should extend to our leaders a certain benefit of the doubt so we can engage with their vision. In VUCA times, leaders and followers must trust each other to take a chance and explore new paths together.

Confronting opposition

Trust matters. The less trust leaders accumulate in the organizational emotional bank account, the harder it is to gain staff buy-in during VUCA times. At some point in most staff members’ workplace history, they were likely misled or disappointed by a leader in whom they put trust. In the article Leading in a VUCA Environment, Eric Kail states that “It is human nature to see every challenge as something similar to what we’ve encountered before. That’s how our brains work and for good reason; if we had to assess every situation as novel we wouldn’t be as efficient as we need to be.” When confronted with a leader who shares a vision for something radically different, asking followers to believe in it, human nature, as Kail points out, will recall past bad experiences. That can trigger staff to simply shut down any possibility of openness to a new idea. Kail suggests three things leaders can do to counter resistance through advance preparation:

  • Get a fresh perspective: Keep questioning the soundness of your vision and strategic plan to achieve it. Consider asking staff to take a devil’s advocate approach to counter group think and identify weakness in the plan.
  • Be flexible: It’s hard to avoid being wed to a specific plan. In a VUCA world, develop plans for maximum flexibility as they are conceived.
  • Glance back, look ahead: It can help to acknowledge successes and failures but avoid allowing colleagues to focus on the past. Focus on moving the organization forward into the future with the intention of making it better.

Cultivate for change

In VUCA times it’s less certain that what’s worked in the past will work now. When it is nearly impossible for leaders to know exactly how things will turn out, and it’s unclear what new strategies are in order, perhaps there is value in embracing VUCA. Inspiration for that approach can be found in Brian Mathews’s new publication Cultivating Complexity: How I Stopped Driving the Innovation Train and Started Planting Seeds in the Community Garden. In it, Mathews discusses VUCA as a model that can allow leaders and their followers to express common concerns about working under the stress of uncertainty. When I asked Mathews why this model appealed to him and how he thinks it may be of help to leaders, he said that “VUCA forces us to acknowledge and confront the unknown aspects of a project or new direction.  What can we do to reduce the level of uncertainty? Maybe this leads to prototyping or developing several different plans simultaneously to see if a workable solution emerges.” For leaders, Mathews thinks “VUCA situations present a critical opportunity to focus on vision. What are we really trying to achieve here? What outcomes are we working toward? The pursuit of a complex and challenging task is the best way to build a sense of camaraderie. Teams can develop a fuller sense of ownership when they co-design and co-create solutions together.”

An organization that’s static or adrift is sure to find itself reacting to change forced upon it rather than anticipating change and adapting in advance. Mathews’s point about leaders embracing the VUCA framework could be a way to best manage change. Another thing to know about Landauer and Rush is that they are not alone. Their futures are full of uncertainty, but both are supported by teams of specialists and supporters that help them figure out how to overcome the obstacles to getting one step closer to the goal. Library leaders can take a lesson from that to develop teams that, as Mathews says, can work together to discover solutions to get us through these VUCA times. Our library community members are depending on us to get it right.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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Comments

  1. A recent New York Times article in the Opinion section offers a surprising discussion on innovative use of libraries. See if you agree:

    http://authorexpressions.blogspot.com/

    Jacqueline Seewald
    retired teacher, author and librarian

  2. I would contend that VUCA is even harder for library managers because their goals are less obvious than those of Landauer and Rush given above and, in the rare case when goals are clear, deciding whether the library has reached them is more difficult to measure. For the academic library, faculty and students are competing for limited resources. Is one group more important than the other? Is providing study space for students more critical than keeping the aging print collections accessible for the faculty that will complain bitterly if the books are sent to storage? How sure is the library leader that increasing the amount of resources or instruction will lead to more research or learning? For the public library, I have written about the difficulty of satisfying both technophobes and technophiles. Is it more important to satisfy the voracious reader of genre fiction who comes to the library every day or the patron who wants the complete seasons for multiple TV shows avaialble only at exhorbitant prices over the patron who wants 3-D printing and instruction sessions on the latest technology?

    In many ways even VUCA is easier for the corporate leader since success is determined by how much money the company earns, an objective measure that is mostly absent from libraries. Similarly, sales and profit provide reliable feedback on whether any new strategies are working or not though sometimes success or failure even in the corporate world is more a question of luck than planning.

    • Thanks for your comment Bob. You make some good points but I would imagine that corporate leaders also have some ambiguous issues to deal with and difficult decisions – it isn’t always about just making profits – and a growing number of businesses want to be socially responsible so they hav to balance making profits with doing what is right for customers. That said, you do describe ways in which things are challenging for librarians because we can’t pick and choose a segment of the market to serve – we have to please everyone and the leads to hard choices – as you point out, I could only say that we could benefit from having good plans, concrete and measurable outcomes, and as I pointed out in the column, a team approach in which we all feel responsible for the success of the organization. That is, we all take ownership of the VUCA environment and work together to succeed despite its presence.

    • Bob Holley says:

      I mostly agree with what you say in your reply. Having good plans and measurable outcomes arrived at by a team approach has many advantages including increased staff buy-in. But the decision making can be amorphous and based upon assumptions that are difficult to prove. As someone who has grappled with this issue, deciding whether database x versus database y produces more research and learning is hard to determine beyond asking some key people or sending out a survey that usually has a low response rate, both of which don’t qualify as hard statistical data.

      As a reader of the Wall Street Journal, I’ll still affirm that the end result for corporations is profit. I’m cynical enough to contend that being socially responsible is a long-term strategy to acquire loyal customers that in the end increases the profit that determines how corporate managers are judged.

      Finally, library managers have to take ownership of the VUCA environment because they don’t have any choice. Some library managers will succeed better than others for reasons that you give. Some with good people skills may even be highly regarded by pleasing their constituencies even though objectively little evidence exists for their excellent reputation precisely because “success” is a squishy term in the library world.

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