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Leading in a VUCA Environment

By Vishal Agnihotri posted 07-08-2020 17:39


A crisis is a terrible thing to waste, especially as it is usually an invaluable occasion for leaders to hit the reset button in their organizations. When chaos is reigning, most employees are looking for direction and comfort, and during a global pandemic, they are looking for information as well. For every business on the planet, the COVID pandemic unleashed a sudden VUCA environment. 

VUCA, for the uninitiated, is an acronym initially coined by the United States military that stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. Volatility refers to the nature, dynamics, and speed of change and catalysts when the challenge is unexpected or unstable. Uncertainty refers to the lack of predictability and potential for surprise. Complexity refers to the interconnectedness of many variables, and the difficulty of processing the volume or depth of those connections. Ambiguity refers to the mixed meaning of prevailing conditions.

 “VUCA” has since become part of the vocabulary of a decision-making framework and a practical code for awareness and readiness. It also quickly became a personal code to follow when my firm’s COO, Tracy Elmblad, tapped me to lead the firm’s Readiness Planning task force for a return to the office. This task force included all administrative department heads and office managers of the 18 offices across 11 states -- the first cross-departmental program of its kind for our firm. It initially operated with incomplete data and the pressure for urgency. After the first meeting in the first week of April, the group walked away with 50 action items, that list would only grow in time. 

The task force became the antidote to VUCA, immersing people in data-driven decision-making simulations. It countered challenges with learning, encouraging leaders to listen beyond their functional areas of expertise. Teamwork and collaboration across the organization became key to achieving a better understanding of a shortened learning cycle with a daily fire hose of new information. Knowledge sharing, sensemaking, and transparent communication, all tenets of Knowledge Management helped this task force break through the complexity of wading through the unknowns. 

Collaborative Learning

To deploy resources to gather information for better data-driven planning, the task force became a learning lab. Surveys gauged sentiment of the employees and Partners and gathered feedback on various scenarios around working at home and in the office. We created the straw man of the return plan based on guidance from OSHA and CDC and involved the firm’s GC, L&E Counsel, and HR for additional guidance. We then set about collating other critical data, like enforced and eased state orders, county or city level orders, court rules, public transit schedules, schools, childcare and camps, local building management protocols, and incidence rates. These data points are a moving target as guidelines have been evolving and data around infection rates has emerged in patterns that are hard to predict. However all this has contributed to our living Readiness for Return to Office Plan.

Embracing Transparency

A site on the firm portal was an obvious choice for an effective mechanism to disseminate information on emerging information like state orders, court rules around remote operations, tips and training on virtual depositions and communication templates for various scenarios. However, what was new with this endeavor was the effort to promote transparency and openly share working documents and action plans so that everyone in the firm could see the arc of action as it unfolded. The pandemic had already created anxiety, and the task force was determined to avoid stoking it any further.

The task force leadership also maintained open and regular communication with the firm’s Chairman, Managing Partner, and Office Partners, who were consulted while preparing the final plans and communications.

Every detail counts

Many new processes had to be set up in the absence of a playbook that addressed a global pandemic. The firm had invested in business continuity and disaster recovery planning complete with tabletop exercises, however had not included a global pandemic of this magnitude in their plans. Had anyone? Even something small like designing and implementing a new visitor screening procedure and form to safeguard the employees of the firm from external guests (clients, outside counsel, vendors, etc.) became a mini-project because it had to take into consideration the nuances of privacy laws, data retention best practices and client relations. 

Active Listening

In the age of the algorithm, our team reverted to the ground principles of sensemaking in gathering and acting on knowledge. We gathered information to collectively decide on the next steps. One of the ways to counter the ambiguity of the situation was by testing our plan in small doses. We decided to use a handful of offices as a vanguard to test the assumptions and guidelines in our initial plan. Given that our offices are physically in different states and subject to local rules, perceptions, and infection rates, our task force had to rely on both a standard set of guidelines and local intelligence to execute return plans. We considered office layouts with occupancy recommendations and local conditions, as well as potential employee anxiety or health concerns about returning to the office. 

Connecting Peers

As people started to sequester in compliance with shelter-in-place orders, they felt an immediate and equal need to stay connected with their colleagues. The social collaboration tool that had only achieved an average level of traction in the firm earlier suddenly became very popular. Within the first couple of weeks, three new groups were created on the firm’s social network - one that was open to everyone in the firm and meant to keep them socially connected during the shelter-in-place, another group that was an opt-in group for parents in the firm, and a closed group just for Associates to share their experiences and concerns. Colleagues used everything from humor, queries, photos, and tips to keep engaged with each other on this enterprise network. They shared photos of their home offices and pets, and YouTube videos with tips and personal experiences on this virtual water cooler. We moved quickly to add Zoom to the technology stack, which singularly helped fight off some of the isolation of remote working.

Re-coding Culture

Coming together as a task force in the unusual circumstances that impinged on personal and professional lives inadvertently created a closely-knit working group. The task force's multiple weekly meetings achieved what would otherwise take years - a culture of assumed joint responsibility of the task ahead and the outcome of collective thought and action. 

In the second quarter of the fiscal year, this close working group transformed into a higher functioning administrative leadership team. The group’s leadership relied on stimulating team spirit and enabling creative problem solving during a time of chaos and concern. The extended period of mass remote operations has been an accelerated social experiment of change, brought about by an unexpected exogenous event. This newfound flexibility has the potential to become the catalyst for a deeper transformation. 

Now that the cadre has encouraged lateral thinking, quick decision making and adaptive creative problem solving through its departmental leadership, it is setting its sights next on capitalizing on the momentum and working on an opportunistic transformation of the firm.