Thriving in a VUCA World

You can’t step twice into the same river.

Fast flowing river with boulders; source: Photo by kazuend on Unsplash

Plato popularized this idea of not being able to step twice in the same river in his dialogue with Cratylus (link opens in new tab), which he attributed to Heraclitus. Over the millennia, we’ve boiled this idea of the river down to something we’ve all no doubt seen on a poster: “The only constant in life is change”.

Neither Plato nor Heraclitus could’ve known where we were all headed. They thought they knew about change.

For the first time since his creation, man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem — how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.

John Maynard Keynes, 1930

That’s cute, right?

In 1930, John Maynard Keynes felt really good about how we’re managing the economy because he figured he’s got it all worked out. But he assumed, like many of us, that things will change at the same speed.

Rather than being bored to death, our actual challenge is to avoid anxiety attacks, psychotic breakdowns, heart attacks, and strokes resulting from being accelerated to death.

unverified statement attributed to Geoffrey West, theoretical physicist at the Sante Fe Institute (link opens in new tab)

This statement feels a bit more accurate about our experience of change.

Change v Rate of Change

Sure, things change, but if they change at the same speed, we’d get used to it. But that’s just not how things have played out, have they?

Unfortunately, what the 20th and the 21st century have shown us is that things don’t change at the same rate. Instead, things change faster and faster. The pace or rate of change is getting faster.

We experience that rate of change as volatility, uncertainty.

The nature of the change is coming from all sides, some of which are inconceivable only a generation ago, i.e. your parents. And some of the change is coming from unexpected sources. And it’s hard to see what else might change, and what it might all mean.

We experience the nature of that change as complexity, ambiguity.


This isn’t a blip. We won’t be going “back” to “how it was”.

It’s going get faster.

Welcome to the VUCA world.

How do we cope?

How do we thrive?

Sandbar; source: Photo by Ishan @seefromthesky on Unsplash

Let’s pause to take a couple of deep breaths.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

To cope and thrive in a VUCA world, we have to recognize and acknowledge it’s VUCA.

And then we have create sand bars of stability for ourselves. I say sand bars rather than islands because that’s all the permanence we can create. Sand bars come and go with the tides, so these moments of stability aren’t forever.

But it’s enough.

These sand bars give us the space, just enough space, to run through the OODA Loop.

OODA – Observe, Orient, Decide, Act

The OODA loop is a framework that gives us the space to pause so that we can use the design tools we have to understand and manage our VUCA world.

It gives us time and space to observe what’s going on around us, to orient this moment in time to others we’ve encountered before. Humans are pattern-seeking creatures. We know through millenia of evolution that patterns help us react fast because being able to react fast helps us survive. We have a short hand for these patterns: we call them heuristics. They let us quickly assess a situation to decide if this is something we’ve encountered before, and if we have, what actions have we taken that have worked out well for us.

The trouble is, we’ve learned that as life has evolved and changed, our behaviours have also evolved and changed. Many of those heuristics have started to fail us. We call those biases. Some of you may have read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow (opens in a new tab). In the book, he identifies and discusses those biases to expose when we might want to take a moment to evaluate if our heuristics have become biases.

The “orient” part of the OODA loop creates that time for us to evaluate, to take the current set of facts to orient them in the broader context, to ask ourselves: “This thing looks like something I’ve experienced before. Is that really true?”

Because if we don’t orient our facts to the full context, we might be mistaken. And if we decide use the same solution we used before, we might create unintended consequences we don’t want. Sometimes, things look the same but underneath, they’re actually very different. Too often, we jump to decisions, i.e. solutions, before we really know what we’re dealing with.

But maybe most important of all, the OODA loop reminds us that we must act. We can’t just sit and observe, wring our hands, work ourselves into despair. So, the OODA loop gives us some structure to deal with VUCA situations, to give ourselves the best chance at solving the right problem or tackling the right opportunity.

The OODA loop gives us a framework to observe the current situation, orient the facts to the broader context, then decide on the options, and last but definitely not least, act.

Hammer and a handful of nails on a wooden surface; source: Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash

Say you’ve had a headache for a week straight, so you go to your doctor. You start telling him a few of the symptoms you’re experiencing. He doesn’t ask any questions before he tells you he’s going to book you in for brain surgery.

Maybe you just need migraine medications, but you’ll never know because he didn’t dig much.

And to top it all off, he’s all talk and doesn’t actually book that brain surgery for you. Well, maybe that’s a good thing.

Stethoscope; source: Photo by Hush Naidoo Jade Photography on Unsplash

Now, let’s say you go to another doctor who, in contrast, goes through the OODA loop

This second doctor observes the situation by listening to what you’re saying. Then he orients himself by considering the context in which you’re experiencing those headaches. And that context includes time of day, the weather outside, your family medical history, your own medical history, etc. He knows that context is important because his medical training tells him those could be possible contributors to your headache. And this medical training is, of course, the result of observations from huge amounts of clinical and other data. Only once he’s oriented himself does he decide on a treatment plan. Now, imagine if he just stopped at the decision. That’s it. He gives you a diagnosis and nothing else. You’re not better off, are you? No, he needs to act by prescribing that treatment.

That, in the most simplistic terms, is the OODA loop.

Use the OODA loop to create that sand bar, a couple of deep breaths, a refuge to think.

Young Asian woman holding a pink balloon in front of her; source: Photo by Joseph Chan on Unsplash

When you’re faced with a project, or even a situation in your own life, the OODA loop are those two deep breaths we took earlier. It’s like the balloon trick I got taught to manage anxiety: when you feel anxious, take a balloon and blow into it because you have to breathe in order to blow up a balloon.

When things are coming at us and changing fast (volatility), when we don’t know when they might change again (uncertainty), when we can’t easily work out what causes what and what the relationships are between and among all the things that are going on (complexity), and we have no idea what any of it means for what aspect of the situation (ambiguity), we can use the OODA loop to create that sand bar, a couple of deep breaths, a refuge to think.

No matter how messy a project we’re asked to work on, going through each step methodically – Observe, Orient, Decide, Act – helps us stay clear-headed and keeps us from either rage-quitting or despair-quitting.

Often, designers would say to me,

They never give us proper briefs.

many designers

And my response is, “Good. Let’s go interview stakeholders, customers, and users to figure out what exactly we should be working on.”

What triggered the request from stakeholders? Let’s go shine lights in dark corners until we start getting oriented to the space. Are the problems something we’ve seen before? Have we solved them before? Or maybe they look similar, but there are some meaningful differences.

Without understanding the context through the Orient segment of the loop, we might just say, “Oh, last time I observed a problem where people weren’t using a feature, I changed the colour of the button, and that fixed it.” Except last time, the feature that didn’t get used was front and centre in the UI. This time, the feature is hidden behind a panel. Are they really the same problem?

Are they really the same problem?

Sometimes we act too fast. We act without really understanding what we’re dealing with.

Sometimes, we don’t act at all. We’re in analysis paralysis.

When I was in grad school, I heard about a tenured prof who was fired. In academia, it’s publish or perish. He didn’t publish, so he perished. The urban legend was that his defence was that he was doing “contemplative research”. Turns out, even academics need to act.

The Observe and Orient segments of the loop give us the space to go down some rabbit holes. The Decide and Act segments of the loop remind us not to stay in those holes.

Designers are put on this earth to create change.

Designers can’t create change if we don’t act.

So once we’ve done the observing and orienting, we have to push ourselves to decide. And then we have to act.

That decision might be “OK, I’ve observed X amount and oriented that information against what I know and what others know. I know enough to be able to formulate some ideas of what might work. And then I’m going to do something.”

Going through the loop gives you a chance to make sure you’re not making the wrong move and also ensures you’re actually making a move.

Bring it, VUCA. I will fight you with the OODA loop.

Maybe 10 years ago, when I first learned about VUCA, I experienced something that felt like relief. It’s like when you’re sick, but no one can give you a diagnosis. Then you finally get one and know what courses of action might be available to you. The diagnosis might not be good nor your options, but you now have words to make sense of the situation.

I hope this concept of VUCA helps you make sense of your world. And I hope you’ll try using the OODA loop to make some space to breathe so you can strategically choose your design tools, to use the right tool at each step of the loop to methodically tease out the details of the problem or opportunity space.

Further reading

Change is not linear but exponential:

Origins of the term “VUCA”:

Managing in a VUCA world:

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

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