Thriving in a complex world of uncertainty, ambiguity and volatility

Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity – VUCA – or simply a catch-all phrase to say “it is crazy out there”. Living in a VUCA world means we have to think differently about how we organise our organisations and projects. It is important that any organisation is able to quickly adjust their plans and structure if the environment requires to do so. As the COVID-19 pandemic shows us our environment can change in a snap and have huge consequences on any organisation. Working in a VUCA world might sound scary, but it doesn’t have to be. When you are aware of your strategy, the surrounding landscape and have the ability to learn quickly, I feel that any organisation can thrive in this VUCA world.

First thing first: you have to know where you are heading towards. What is your strategy? Either for the organisation or for the project you are running. What is the goal, what is it you are trying to achieve and what does the landscape look like? A visual map of your strategy is a great asset to help communicate and motivate the team that is working every day to bring that strategy to life. 

Wardley Mapping

One of the techniques we like to use at our clients is Wardley Mapping. Wardley Mapping is a process that describes the elements to make strategic decisions. These elements help you to carefully assess the why, a description of the competitive landscape, external forces at play in that landscape (climate) and how to train your people (doctrine).

The strength of a Wardley Map is that it quickly shows the goal and the elements in play for the organisation or project. It helps you to find and visualize the value streams. The outward look of the elements towards the competitors makes it visible to find the areas where the company or project can differentiate. The uncertainties, ambiguities and complexity become a bit more clear when having this mapped properly.

It helps in understanding if the investments in some area are worthwhile or not. Investing in something which is a commodity won’t help you to differentiate. These commodities are the areas where you might want to go for an off the shelf solution. Once you find the uncharted areas where new opportunities exist, how can you make sure you achieve the highest probability of success?


Having decided upon a strategy it is time to make it actionable. In some cases, it might be obvious what needs to be developed or created in order to execute on the strategy. However, often it will be unclear what needs to be developed in order to reach the goals. Perhaps there are multiple ways to achieve your goal. Experimentation can help you to find the right things to start investing in.

One of the methods I like to use is pretotyping. Pretotyping is a set of tools that help you to quickly validate an idea. For example: when we have an idea for a new training we sometimes want to see if there is interest before developing a new curriculum. In these cases, we create some information and a high-level description of the training and put it online. We will measure how many people engage themselves for an update on training dates. When the number is interesting enough we will design the training and start enrolling people. When we see that the initial idea has failed to generate traction, we can easily move on to another idea because we have only invested a limited amount of time and resources.

A key principle in pretotyping is to start doing, but don’t necessarily finish what you started. Start to try things out. Are you wary of mixing up all of your teams to work multidisciplinary, start to experiment with a mixed team for an epic or small project. Use the learnings to assess the next steps. Importantly, there is no failure here. It is all about learning. Ensure you provide an environment where it is safe to fail. Don’t let people experiment for safe options, go wild!

Experimentation is part of the first phase of Kent Beck’s 3X model. The first phase is called explore and Kent Beck describes this phase as:

“Explore–the risky search for a viable return on a viable investment [via experimentation]…If you’re lucky, one of these experiments turns out to be unexpectedly successful. 

Optimising for flow

Once a strategy is defined and experimentation is about to start, it is good to have a look at how to organise for quick learning. The goal here is to have fast feedback so we can learn and iterate on the strategy and the execution of it. Empirical research as described in the book Accelerate shows us that high-performers have a fast throughput without nibbling in on stability and quality.

Having the ability to respond swiftly to changing requirements is a key capability in a VUCA world. If our environment or strategy changes we want to respond as soon as possible. Providing the opportunity to experiment and learn will help to start reducing any uncertainty about the way the organisation is heading. 

Minimise team dependencies

Reducing the number of dependencies for a team is a great way to start optimising for flow. I personally remember the frustrations I had when I needed other teams so I could deploy my new feature. Never were we aligned on what exactly was required and in almost any occasion I was stuck in the waiting game.

Successful teams with a fast throughput are able to work autonomously. They don’t require a team to deploy their new feature, Q&A is a capability they possess in the team. All the business logic they require to alter for the new feature falls under their ownership as the team is responsible for the entire value stream. It reduces handovers and additional communication with other teams, or in other words, we cut out additional complexity.

Shared sense of reality

Developing a product is teamwork. It is not simply an effort of the development team that has been provided with the input from the business. Especially in this day and age, it is important to have short feedback cycles with the users and/or representatives of those users, the domain experts. We call this having a shared sense of reality.

Business and IT depend on each other and create their reality together. By creating a Ubiquitous Language, the mission and vision will become even more clear and will create a deeper understanding and motivation. With visual collaboration techniques such as EventStorming, you’ll get input from all relevant stakeholders, enabling everyone to tell the story and collaboratively model reality. These steps are very often ignored or overlooked when working on a project together.

Especially when wanting to experiment and learn fast, good and frequent collaboration between the development team, product owner and domain experts help to create valuable experiments. 

Coping with the VUCA world

As an organisation in a VUCA world, it is necessary to think and act differently. Be aware of your strategy and your environment by creating a Wardley Map. It will help you to assess the current strategy and investments that are being made. Is your money and effort spent on the right projects or should you alter your strategy?

Once you have a good feeling about your strategy start experimenting. Learn if the ideas actually work and do so quickly. It is not about failure here, it is about learning. Reduce any uncertainties and ambiguities by testing what works and what doesn’t. The proof is in the pudding and not in a thought experiment.

Curious about Wardley Mapping or designing an organisation optimised for flow? We can help you with both topics and provide tangible hands-on support.