VUCA first came onto my “radar” in the early Spring of 2020. I was ashore, having left my last ship in February 2020 and walking on a path through the woods in our community. On my headphones was Todd Conklin‘s Pre-Accident Investigations podcast discussion with Martha Acosta. And the topic was VUCA.
For anyone short of memory, the United States had just gone into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic and my family, like so many others, was in limbo. The concept of a VUCA environment – Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous – certainly seemed to fit what was going on in the world.
In the mid-1980’s, VUCA originated with economists and university professors Warren Bennis and Burton Nanus in their book Leaders. The Strategies For Taking Charge. It was then adapted and utilized by the U.S. Army War College to help understand the world in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse. Over the past 30 years, the VUCA model has helped people make sense of the increasing complex and volatile world in which we live.
More recently, Jamais Cascio has promoted the BANI model, indicating that the increased rate of change in the world has rendered the VUCA model obsolete.
VUCA (from Jake Wood, VUCA Decoding Chaos Series: Part 1, Introduction to VUCA)
Volatile situations are unexpected and unstable but easy to understand. You know the variables but cannot control them. The duration of volatile situations is unknown. Think of the stock market. You know the levers that cause prices to go up and down, but you cannot control them.
Uncertain situations lack predictability and have many prospects for surprise. You understand basic cause and effect, but lack the information needed to leverage that understanding. Think of the game of Blackjack. You understand the rules of the game and how to win. You cannot pick your cards, but you know what they are. However, you only know 50% of the dealer’s hand.
Complex situations have countless interconnected parts and variables. The volume and nature of information is overwhelming. Causes have multi-order consequences. Think of Chess. After each player has made four moves on the board there are 288 billion possible board configurations. That’s a staggering amount of possibilities. An average chess game lasts forty moves, with an average of thirty options per move. Great chess players think multiple moves ahead and must account for all of those hundreds of options in their strategy.
Ambiguous situations are dominated by unknown-unknowns. Causal relationships are unclear or confusing. What is causing what? One plus one no longer equals two. Making things even more challenging, there is no precedent for what is occurring, reducing or eliminating our ability to rely on experience. The best analogy for ambiguity is getting dropped into a giant maze. You have no landmarks and no information. Every turn is just a guess, and it becomes impossible to mentally map what you are experiencing. The best you can do is to keep walking.
BANI (from Jeroen Kraaijenbrink’s LinkedIn post of February 2023)
Brittle – The Illusion of Strength
Brittle means being fragile, breakable, while seeming firm. It is illusory strength, the belief that “everything will be alright” and the assumptions that “we all know are true,” except they aren’t necessarily true. Embracing Brittle means letting go of this first illusion, the Illusion of Strength.
Anxious – The Illusion of Control
Anxiety refers to a feeling of helplessness and it comes with stress and worrying. It is a byproduct of information. The more people hear and see, especially bad news, the more anxious they get because they feel they lose control. The secret? We have never been in control. Hence, the A in BANI breaks the Illusion of Control.
Non-linear – The Illusion of Predictability
Non-linearity is already a popular concept for a longer time. It says: there’s no simple straight route from A to B. Instead, there’s detours, dead ends, and unexpected outcomes. Non-linearity has always been there and it is a default feature of any complex system. BANI shows we finally become aware of this, thereby breaking the Illusion of Predictability.
Incomprehensible – The Illusion of Knowledge
Finally, incomprehensible refers to people’s experience that they don’t understand what is going on. They can’t oversee it, can’t grasp it, can’t interpret what happens, and why. The issue, though, is that we might have thought we understood the world. But we never really have. As such, BANI breaks a fourth illusion, the Illusion of Knowledge.
What does this mean to the maritime industry?
Brittle or brittleness is a term not unknown in the maritime industry, but in the past, it has largely referred to the physical properties of steel. A steel product that is brittle, while initially imbued with great strength, is subject to fracture and failure under the correct conditions.
In much the same way, systems are being referred to as “brittle” or “resilient.” Resilience engineering has taken this topic to new levels with David Woods‘ “graceful extensibility” and Todd Conklin‘s view on “capacity.” In particular, if we view maritime safety from a systems perspective, we should concentrate on having a resilient system – one that can safely adapt when something goes poorly, rather than harm our people, vessels, cargo, environment or reputation.
Empathy is a topic that is likely addressed with one or two slides in a leadership and management presentation for management level officers. That’s unfortunate, as it is a very strong response to the anxiety that people may feel in uncertain times. Anxiety over a lack of information or lack of ability to correct an issue is very subjective. It’s only by having an empathetic response that we can help the people in our organizations through these times when we lack control.
Non-linear or adaptive change (another topic frequently given short shrift in leadership and management courses) creates situations where we need to think “outside the box.” When confronted with such change, it is the adaptable and innovative organization that will prevail. Two approaches can be considered – one, of “known unknowns” or signals from within the system and the second of “unknown unknowns” or wild cards In neither approach are you trying to explicitly identify and control these unknowns, but are trying to identify the signals or disruptors that indicate adaptation is necessary.
Non-linear thinking may also have a beneficial effect on accident investigations. Many root cause analyses (RCA) are very linear, leading to a specific breakdown in the system (very often human error). Approaching the accident investigation in a non-linear manner may reveal some of the complex relationships that have lead to the accident or incident.
Which leads us to incomprehensibility. A step beyond ambiguity, incomprehensibility sometimes comes from the flood of information or information overload that we are subject to these days. While we may not be able to make sense of the situation of information in the moment, through transparency and collaboration, we can ensure continued safe operations for our organizations.
Whether we view our organizations and operations through the VUCA lens or the BANI lens, they both offer opportunities to understand the complexity of the systems in which we work. In the end, they both help the human in the system remain safe.
Let’s be safe out there.
Additional Reading and Links
PAPod 266 – V U C A – Martha Acosta on COVID 19 – Pre-Accident Investigations Podcast