“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” was Mike Tyson’s legendary response when asked how he was going to deal with the style and movement of a future opponent. Essentially he was saying that strategy will only get you so far and it’s how we react to adversity that makes the difference. The issue for most of us is that, while we’re generally pretty good at strategy and planning, we’re not so well-trained at adapting, pivoting and handling what the army call VUCA.
VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. It’s a term coined by the US military to describe the constantly changing conditions in which they operate, and was devised to explain why it is that most battles are won not with strategy but with improvisation.
It’s easy to imagine VUCA in a combat environment but actually VUCA exists everywhere and for everyone. VUCA for me is when a client shifts a deadline at the last minute. VUCA for a call center employee is when a new type of customer complaint is raised. VUCA for a CEO is when regulations change or a new competitor springs up. VUCA within a relationship is when someone gets tired and picks a fight or when you disagree about what school to send your kid to. I could go on.
If how we handle VUCA is what makes the difference, as Iron Mike suggests, then how do we make sure that we’re ready for it? The answer is to make sure we give a shit. Because if we really care about our work, or our relationship, or our education, then the likelihood is that we’ll roll with the punches, try a little harder, show a little more grit, and push our ideas a little further, all of which are essential to being adaptive which is ultimately what this is all about.
So how do you make someone give a shit? To cut to the chase, you have to unlock their why, and the most important ‘whys’ are play, purpose and potential. When something is done for the love (play), outcome (purpose) or developmental benefit (potential) of it - and not as a result of emotional or economic pressure or inertia, people are better able to both execute their plans and more importantly skillfully diverge from them when the unexpected inevitably happens.
Consider your own relationship? Why are you in it? Is it because you feel play and enjoy hanging out together? Is it because you feel a sense of purpose and believe you’re achieving something important together like growing a family or building a company? Or is it because you feel like you’re a better person when you’re with your partner, which is potential. If all three of these motives are maximized, it’s easy to imagine a world where you’re better able to problem solve together, make compromises, listen and show empathy.
This same equation applies to leaders in business. If you want to enable your people to be more adaptive, resilient, loyal and helpful, have a think about what their why is and make an effort to maximize their play, purpose and potential. Find out what they enjoy most and design their role around it (play), help them make the connection between your goals and their identity (purpose) and figure out ways to ensure that they are always learning (potential). And avoid using pressure to drive behavior - don't use fear as a tactic (emotional pressure), or rely solely on bonuses for performance (economic pressure), and change it up for people who feel stagnant and who are suffering from inertia. You'll be amazed at the results.