Once upon a time (though it’s becoming more of a distant memory), the world was stable and predictable. For most companies, the path to success was clear and visible: produce output as efficiently as possible while minimizing friction from those pesky humans.

Now, with Covid-19, we have a taste of what VUCA — volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity — really means and what’s in store in our future. 

But what if a VUCA world is not something to fear? What if it’s an opportunity to become what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “anti-fragile” — to not only withstand shocks to the system but to actually get better; to not just mitigate the effects, but leverage them. 

The alternative is to become irrelevant. So here are key traits you’ll need to develop in yourself and hire for in your teams. 

High-Velocity Learners and Self-Starters

In a VUCA environment, ”command and control” leadership will no longer work. As execution becomes increasingly dependent on teams, hierarchical reporting structures will get in the way — everyone will need to take ownership. 

“Rather than be supervised and micromanaged by those who are disconnected from the realities of the real-time situation, we need [people who can] respond to unpredictable changes in the rapidly changing environment,” says Dr. Sunnie Giles, creator of Quantum Leadership.   

As we’ve seen so painfully in this pandemic, there is an opportunity cost to time in making decisions. “Too many people optimize for being right, getting stuck in analysis paralysis. You only need to be 70% directionally right,” says tech investor Jed Ng. When conditions are changing fast, it’s more important to be able to course-correct. 

In a VUCA world, deep expertise or intellectual brilliance won’t be sufficient ingredients for success. Top performers will have to be self-starters, comfortable with the uncertainty of trial and error — making small bets and iterating — not waiting until they know the exact coordinates of the destination. Instead of “Hey, there’s a problem,” they say: “This was the problem, this is what caused it and here’s how I solved it.” 

Adaptability

Rather than resources and scale, it’ll be those organizations that can learn and adapt in unpredictable environments that will have a competitive advantage. 

Al Esmail is the CEO of WoTT, a start-up offering cyber security audit tools for developers. He’s found a way to bake in adaptability by hiring polymaths — one hire, for example, has a background in Astrophysics, Biology and Computer Science — and then empowers collaboration with workflow tools. Incorporating diverse perspectives before shipping content or code combined with ambitious deadlines has enabled the team to operate on all cylinders and move fast.

Their ability to adapt was highlighted as Covid-19 dried up their funding sources and Esmail had to let key members of their team go. “Fortunately, our CTO is a four-time founder and polymath who can also wear a CPO hat. He worked with Adobe Sketch and Figma to create interactive mock-ups. It’s not the same as our designer’s work, but because of his diversified skill set, we’ve been able to keep moving forward.”

Empathy

To respond with agility in fast-changing conditions, you need people to buy in quickly on decisions for the greater good. They won’t do that unless they trust you have their back. That means empathy will be critical to execution.

Ferdinand Grapperhaus is the CEO of Physee, a start-up based in the Netherlands that’s winning innovation awards for its SmartSkin, a material that turns a building’s facade into an electricity-generating glass skin powered by the sun. His team of 45 is diverse: 14 nationalities, ranging in age from 19 to 61, with 40% women. 

Two of his Taiwanese employees had experienced the SARS crisis in 2003. In February of this year, as the coronavirus started to spread across Europe, they expressed urgent concern.

Instead of downplaying their fears, Grapperhaus took them seriously and introduced protective measures a full month before being required to by the government: heightening safety protocols in the office, investing in work-sharing applications and proactively allowing people to work from home. During quarantine, that empathy has translated into after-work bonding (zero-waste cooking classes!) and looking out for those who live alone and are feeling isolated.

“Being resourceful doesn’t mean much if you’re only seeing problems from your point of view,” he told me. “You have to be able to put yourself in others’ shoes and see problems through their eyes.” 

Curiosity

The problems we’ll face in a VUCA world will be increasingly complex and ambiguous. Going in with predetermined solutions may prevent us from solving the right problems.

So curiosity is also about unlearning, says Marques Anderson, founder of the World Education Foundation. “We need to be comfortable in that liminal space of not-knowing.”

That’s how, through a series of serendipitous connections, he ended up in the DR Congo, working to provide a solution to malaria. Instead of presuming to know what the best solution would be, Anderson started by speaking with local entrepreneurs to build trust and understand why malaria was such a problem. Once he understood ‘why’ the problem existed, he was able to develop and mobilize a solution that fit the local context, one that created 100+ jobs and delivered 400,000 treatments.

Right now, as a collective, we’re very much in that liminal space. Optimizing for these traits — adaptability, empathy, curiosity — in the way you recruit and incentivize your teams will have a disproportionate impact on your ability to thrive in the changes to come.