VUCA is an acronym the U.S. Army has been using for over a decade to describe the world in which we are living. It stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.
In a VUCA world, it is virtually impossible to predict the future. As a result, it is nigh unto impossible to develop strategic plans - including business, career, and life plans - that we can play out to a certain end as we were able to do in a more static world. But, plan we must. Or as the great philosopher Seneca said:
"If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable."To deal with this conundrum you can employ the idea of poka-yoke to fail-safe your plans on the front end. Here's how. The plans you create answer the question:
"How can we succeed in getting from point A to point B?"Most planning stops there. But to build a fail-safe device for your plan, you must ask and answer a second - and seldom asked - question:
"How can we fail to succeed?"The best idea on how to answer this question comes from Gary Klein, a research psychologist and author of The Power of Intuition. He suggests that when our plans have been etched in stone, we conduct what he calls a PreMortem. This means holding a conversation in which we look out into the future to speculate on how our plans might meet an untimely demise. Here's what to do in Gary's own words.
- Preparation. Team members take out sheets of paper and get relaxed in their chairs. They should already be familiar with the plan, or else have the plan described to them so they can understand what is supposed to be happening.
- Imagine a fiasco. When I conduct the PreMortem, I say I am looking into a crystal ball and, oh no, I am seeing that the plan has failed. It isn’t a simple failure either. It is a total, embarrassing, devastating failure. The people on the team are no longer talking to each other. Our company is not talking to the sponsors. Things have gone as wrong as they could. However, we could only afford an inexpensive model of the crystal ball so we cannot make out the reason for the failure. Then I ask, “What could have caused this?”
- Generate reasons for failure. The people on the team spend the next three minutes writing down all the reasons why they believe the failure occurred. Here is where intuitions of the team members come into play. Each person has a different set of experiences, a different set of scars, and a different mental model to bring to this task. You want to see what the collective knowledge in the room can produce.
- Consolidate the lists. When each member of the group is done writing, the facilitator goes around the room, asking each person to state one item from his or her list. Each item is recorded in a whiteboard. This process continues until every member of the group has revealed every item on their list. By the end of this step, you should have a comprehensive list of the group’s concerns with the plan as hand.
- Revisit the plan. The team can address the two or three items of greatest concern, and then schedule another meeting to discuss ideas for avoiding or minimizing other problems.
- Periodically review the list. Some project leaders take out the list every three to four months to keep the spectre of failure fresh, and re-sensitize the team to the problems that may be emerging.
"Argue as if you are right; listen as if you are wrong." - Karl Weick
"It often happens that a player carries out a deep and complicated calculation, but fails to spot something elementary right at the first move." - Grandmaster Alexander Kotov
"Anticipation is the heart of wisdom. If you are going to cross a desert, you anticipate that you will be thristy, and you take water." - Mark Helprin, A Soldier of the Great War