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Confronting a “VUCA” world: Themes from AFP 2021

When we think of the “new normal” so often referenced earlier in the pandemic, most of us think primarily of working from home and attending meetings via Zoom. AFP 2021, this year’s Association for Financial Professionals’ conference, drove home that the changes go much deeper. In addition to the accommodations for virtual attendance that heralded the more obvious adjustments, themes emerged that showed how COVID was the first domino in a long line of deeper changes.

The conference’s keynote speakers were all about engaging with the new world we find ourselves in with authentic, realistic recognition of what is happening and what we can do about it. Amy Edmondson summed this up in the conference’s final keynote, emphasizing the importance of confronting our “VUCA” world: “Volatile. Uncertain. Complex. Ambiguous.”

It was a fitting wrap-up keynote as it echoed and tied together multiple threads that ran through so much of the conference. In the face of so much volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (will inflation keep rising or is it temporary, what’s next in the supply chain problems, etc.), what can we realistically do? How do we respond?

Amy made three observations about the VUCA world that crowned the week’s themes:

          1. Innovation will be constantly needed in a VUCA world. Innovation was a theme from start to finish at AFP 2021, and speakers from legendary skateboarder Tony Hawk to Shawn Kanungo and Suneel Gupta offered practical advice. How do we become innovative, and how do we give our innovations their best chance of success?

          First, build your innovation muscle. Practice it. Start innovating in low-stake areas and hone ideas before bringing them to your organization and attempting to implement them in high-stake areas.

          Second, you have to have conviction. You can’t convince anyone else until you’ve first convinced yourself. This isn’t a matter of bravado or drumming up false confidence, however. Instead, it requires incubating your idea for a while. Mull it over. Be careful to fall in love with the problem, not the solution, and come up with alternative solutions to see if there’s an even better idea than your original one.

          2. Anyone’s voice can be mission critical in a VUCA world. Teamwork and valuing alternative perspectives formed another thread running the length of the conference.

          Having a variety of perspectives helps you reach the best solution. In some scenarios, this means “teaming”, which Amy Edmondson defined as “teamwork on the fly” – situations where you don’t have an established team but have to work together. At other times, this means substituting questions such as “Who has a different perspective?” instead of “Are there any questions?” during routine Zoom meetings.

In addition, psychological safety and authenticity are required. Significant gaps between staff’s “thought bubbles” and what they actually say create risk for the organization. Everyone needs to feel that candor is valued. This doesn’t mean there are low standards or that it’s entirely comfortable to be frank – just that it’s valued.

          3. Things will go wrong in a VUCA world. Failing well is part of being an innovator. Tony Hawk would have gotten nowhere if he’d been afraid to fall. Amy Edmondson gave another helpful framework for failure, however, by distinguishing three different types: mistakes, accidents and “discoveries”. Mistakes are preventable and should be prevented. We should be aware of and ready to respond to the constant possibility of accidents. “Discoveries”, however, are intelligent, low-risk failures that lead to learning, and these should be actively increased.

Ultimately, in a VUCA world, we are dealing less with well-defined puzzles and more with mysteries, as Vikram Mansharamani noted in his keynote. Even if we work in a specialized setting, we need to develop some generalist skills: stepping back, considering the big picture and the breadth of perspectives, and seeking to connect whatever dots we already have instead of trying to find more dots. As we take this step back, we must respond to what we find with the three points above: innovating, listening and failing well.

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