VUCA: Same old, same new
Executive Education / 7 January 2020
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Project Management Product Manager
Barbara Rave (M.A.) is a product manager in Frankfurt School’s Professional & Executive Education department. She designs continuing education programmes covering Strategy & Change Management and Technology & Operations.

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Anybody involved in project management is bound to have come across the acronym VUCA, standing for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Basically, it describes the environment in which businesses and their decision-makers have to operate nowadays. Ever-changing circumstances caused by ongoing digitalisation make it increasingly difficult to forecast economic or technical developments, and coalitions of interests are becoming increasingly complex. Previously effective management strategies and processes are unable to cope with these new challenges.

In a world of accelerating change, pitfalls associated with all the above-mentioned factors can make life very difficult for project managers. Even small changes to existing constructs can suddenly balloon to unanticipated dimensions. Individual scenarios become much more difficult to predict; forecasts lose much of their relevance. It becomes almost impossible to make sensible plans for investment, development or even growth. Intermediate correlations start to blur and the “right way to do things” ceases to exist. Previously magisterial concepts such as “best practice” and “one size fits all” are now things of the past, because once it becomes impossible to clearly formulate requirements or implement them in a straightforward manner, every project becomes a one-off.

Problem, meet solution

So how does a modern project manager circumnavigate these obstacles? In this case, VUCA not only represents the problem – it also represents the tools needed to solve it:





Human-centred design – that is, a corporate culture that puts the focus on people – should result in successful project management. First of all, it’s important to give employees a sense of direction, so management should provide a vision for the future, together with a sense of purpose. Satisfactory answers should be provided for the whys and wherefores before anyone even thinks about embarking on a project. Individuals with a sense of purpose are motivated to tackle their work, and if the project is also characterised by inner and outer transparency, employees find it easier to identify with the underlying plan.

Starting from the desired project outcome, the second step is to determine the best way to achieve it: Yes, this involves looking at things backwards for a change! And if you encounter resistance, transform it into positive energy! Simplicity, focus and trust will provide all project participants with the clarity you need to bring the project to a successful conclusion. The final step is all about encouraging adaptability. Promote a culture of decision-making and (acceptance of) failure to pre-empt or circumvent barriers that may be difficult to overcome.

Agile magic formula – dating from 1990?

VUCA first appeared in the United States during the Cold War, back in 1990. At the time, the acronym had military connotations. Today, it’s associated with strategic management and overcoming chaos. As everything continues to accelerate and become increasingly confusing, people yearn for stability and clearly defined requirements – as they did back then. So while VUCA isn’t anything new, it still retains its raison d’être.

That’s why we continue to use this approach in our Project Manager certification course. As is so often the case, it’s not a universal magic formula, but it does leave room for individual interpretation. VUCA is all about cultivating awareness, empathy and a knowledge of human nature – still core elements of successful project work, just as they were 30 years ago.

Alongside the German-language certification course, we also offer the Certified Project Manager course in English.