How Coaching Can Facilitate Business Transformation In A VUCA World

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Meet VUCA, the new normal!
VUCA (pronounced voo–ka) is an acronym for:
Volatility – things are changing quickly but not in any predictable way
Uncertainty – past experience is not a relevant indication of likely future events so planning for the future is extremely difficult
Complexity – there are countless causes to a problem, and they are all difficult to understand
Ambiguity – the various causes of the events at hand are unclear and hard to establish

Sue Noble, Director of Learning and Development, Noble Learning & Amy Tarrant, Project Manager Lead, AXIS Capital. Sue and Amy will be speaking at the Virtual Business Change & Transformation Conference Europe 17-19 May 2021. They will be speaking on the subject, ‘Coaching Organisations Through Change – Tools and Techniques for Change Professionals

Whilst the original use of the acronym can be traced back to the US Army War College in the 1980s, the term was plucked from the archives by Judith Stiehm and Nicholas Townsend[1] to describe the more complex and uncertain post 9/11 environment. Since then, the term has been made its way in to the corporate world as a catch-all for the ever-changing world around us.

Whilst a lot of us embrace the fact of constant change, there are still some refuseniks out there, stroking their chins and talking about ‘getting back to normal’ when a particular event has passed.

Spoiler alert – there is no normal anymore. VUCA is the status quo.

But why does it send fear in to so many of us?If we re-visit the definitions, they go hand in hand with a lack of control, anxiety and even fear. So even though some of us regard ambiguity, change and uncertainty as an opportunity, many people struggle to function at all. Ultimately, whether you love or loathe VUCA comes down to the way we see the world around us, or more simply, our thinking style.

Thinking styles are the basis of the psychometric tool, [i]Emergenetics®, which accurately measures three behavioural attributes (Expressiveness, Assertiveness, Flexibility) and four thinking attributes (Analytical, Structural, Social, Conceptual), thus separating the thinking and behaving. ®. We each have a preference for one or more of these four thinking attributes. Understanding someone’s thinking style is incredibly powerful insight for change practitioners – it tells us how people make decisions, manage particular situations and communicate with others. We can harness this intelligence to develop strategies that enhance our interaction with others and drive up performance and resilience.  

Case study: you have a colleague with one dominant Thinking preference – Analytical. This is represented by the colour blue on the profile tool and Mr Blue is a clear thinker, interested in data, favours an objective analysis of a situation. He will try to find one right answer to a situation and, you guessed it, struggles with change if not presented with clear evidence, facts or figures to justify it. In short, VUCA is the stuff of Mr. Blue’s nightmares.  How can a change practitioner support him through the change that will inevitably be required for the business to thrive in the VUCA world?

We’ll come back to Mr. Blue later but for now, let’s consider a few of the different ways the challenges of VUCA can be mitigated. At an organisational level, many tech firms have adopted the Agile project delivery method, which has enabled them to switch the focus from projects to products and thereby create a near-permanent cycle of change through development. Similarly, firms are increasingly embracing agile working, with teams working from multiple locations of using office-based hot-desks. In addition to the practical benefits of these ways of working, they serve up daily helpings of Vulnerability, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. This in turn helps to embed a culture of constant change and decreases peoples’ sensitivity to the unknown.

However, as an individual change practitioner, I have very little control over corporate ways of working! One  effective tool an individual can bring to bear to get people comfortable with constant, unpredictable change in the face of an unknown future is through a forward-looking roadmap. This helps lift peoples’ eyeline from present-day projects in flight and gets them accustomed to constant scanning the horizon . Granted this practice takes time to embed and is best approached from the top of the organsiation down – a whole article on its own!

There is another way. Let’s consider how a coaching approach can help individuals not just to cope with VUCA, but actually perform and thrive. Coaching is a person-centered, outcome focused approach with the aim of bridging the gap between where an individual is now and where they want to be. Focusing on a goal or desired outcome, the coach supports the individual to identify the root cause of their blocker or limiting belief. The role of the coach is to listen and not give advice and suggestions, but by asking incisive and sometimes challenging questions, a coach helps the coachee to arrive at their own solution. If this sounds familiar, that’s because many (good!) leaders instinctively deploy similar tools, without necessarily being qualified coaches.

So let’s go back to Mr. Blue and apply our coaching tool set to the VUCA conundrum. Thinking styles are key to how a person reacts to being coached. Mr. Blue  dislikes being rushed, patience and an understanding of how Mr. Blue’s thinking preference is informing his experience is essential.

He may resist some questions which he sees as fanciful or lacking in logic, becoming quite

Four Incisive Questions for the Analytical Thinking Preference:
1. Thinking rationally, what sense are you making of this situation right now?
2. What evidence do you need to support you through this situation?
3. What three options do you have? Which one is most relevant to you?
4. What are the pros and cons of what is happening for you?

defensive. So avoid questions like “imagine if you were CEO in 3 years time..what would you do differently?”  If you find Mr. Blue over analyzing your questions by trying to make logical sense of what you mean, the response to your questions may be met with a quick and un-thought through ‘I don’t know’. Although the temptation here is to offer a suggestion or advice, do avoid this – ommitment and buy-in is more powerful when coming directly from the coachee and not from you as the coach.

Top Tip: Analytical thinkers prefer time to think and may respond well to re-grouping a few days later with their own ideas and solutions

With the recognition that VUCA is the status quo, the need to continually support individuals  in this way will only grow in significance. Managing people  through this lenseis not easy and this is where coaching should play a significant role. If you have the skill to ‘be present’ with the individual, to listen with intent, ask questions which focus on the future not on the problem andshow empathy and understanding you can  build the trust, rapport and resilience which are all critical ingredients to overcoming a fear of VUCA!

Sue Noble is Director of Learning and Development at Noble Consulting and is an experienced Executive Coach who has worked with high profile insurance and banking clients, as well as in the public and not-for-profit sectors. Sue also delivers CMI Accredited Coaching Programmes, in addition to a range of other courses in leadership and mentoring. She is also a certified practitioner of the pyschometric tools Emergenetics® and Strengthscope®. Sue is an active member of the Change Management Institute and a founding member of the Coaching and Mentoring Special Interest Group.

Amy Tarrant has delivered a wide variety of business transformation and strategy initiatives in the insurance sector over the last 15 years. In 2018 Amy established the South East branch of the Change Management Institute and hosts workshops and panel discussions with and for change professionals. Over time, Amy has become fascinated by the benefits that fusing change management with coaching has on the delivery of change.

Copyright Sue Noble, Director of Learning and Development, Noble Learning & Amy Tarrant, Project Manager Lead, AXIS Capital


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