We are in a VUCA world : a world in which Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity dominate the environment in which we operate. This creates all sorts of challenges for individuals, teams and organisations.  We are creatures of habit.  Our whole sensory system is designed to filter the normal or habitual and respond to them automatically (subconsciously) rather than consciously.  But we’re now in a world where we need to consciously respond to an environment which is changing all the time.

Faster and more Pervasive Change

We recognise the impact of major world events like Brexit, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.  But there are other things that are also changing faster and faster.  People point to the march of technology, changing world of work, the rise of the gig economy, the movement of large populations through migration.  There is fast paced change in the political environment: whether it’s popularism or resurgence of dictatorship in countries we thought had moved to a new democratic norm.

The world is changing, our jobs are changing, our culture is changing, our own personal lives are changing faster and faster and faster.  Futurists agree that this change is not only going to be faster but also become more pervasive and more impactful.

Adaptability and Change

What’s this all got to do with adaptability?  One of the most useful ways of thinking about adaptability is that it is the capability of individuals, teams, and organisations to respond in a healthy way to the need for change.  Perhaps in the past, (I’m talking about the mid twentieth century) we had a large amount of discretionary capacity with which to deal with additional demands.  The stereotype in the ‘50s and ‘60s was, the man goes to work, the woman stays at home.  She’s got time to look after the house and to bring up the children, retirement on a full pension can happen at 60.  This was a world of full employment and 9-5 working and the opportunity for many to become a car owner and homeowner.  The support of domestic automation reduced the load on the stay-at-home Mum and the provision of universal state education meant for many of that generation they’d never had it so good.

If there was additional pressure, then often the stay-at-home Mum could cover it or the man at work would have time in the evenings and at weekends.  We all apparently had discretionary time, discretionary income, and the pressures of change on our lives were much less severe.

Lack of Discretionary Capacity

Now I recognise that we always look back at a ‘golden era’, and the reality is the times those people lived through, may be different from our perceptions. But compare this to our situation today, when, to be a successful professional, you will be working extended hours, some of it at home through devices.  Until recently, it was necessary for many people to commute more than an hour a day each way to the workplace because they couldn’t afford housing closer to their work.  In most households, both parents need to work to afford a mortgage.   There is pressure on children to pass examinations, pressure on professionals to meet key indicators and expectations to perform have never been higher.  Now the amount of discretionary time that individuals, teams and organisations have to deal with change is vanishingly small.  Consider how the removal of many layers of middle management in the continual restructuring from the mid eighties onwards removed a lot of that buffer that middle managers carried in terms of discretionary effort.   Many managers have a full-time day job, which is going to endless meetings.  Only in evenings or weekends, can they do the real job of management: preparing documents, developing reports, thinking and planning for the future.  If you look further down the line, frontline workers are expected to take more and more responsibility for feeding the systems that management rely upon alongside their day job.  Discretionary capacity has been honed out of the system.  We see this not only for individuals and teams, but also in things like just-in-time manufacturing, agile software development.  Similarly extended supply chains are stretched across the world and buffer stocks are kept at a minimum.   We rely upon the consistent inter-working of many complex systems, with many single points of failure.

No Guarantees for the Future

Organisations are facing all sorts of systemic changes, leaders, managers, and individuals, have less and less discretionary capacity to engage with that change, and the pressure is relentlessly on.  Big corporates who had assumed that they had got a mandate to print money are being challenged by smaller nimbler organisations, that have new opportunities through the march of digital technology.  Incumbents who felt protected in their home markets have been challenged by globalisation, which means that people can do work anytime, anywhere, often the lowest cost provider wins out. 

There have been tumultuous political and societal changes.  In most families both parents have to work.  Many children are in complex family setups where parents are responsible for children arising from multiple partners.  Household income is under threat from job insecurity and family breakdown.  The assumptions about the affordability of food, energy, housing and transport are being continually challenged. 

Harder, longer, faster is not enough

The evidence that we’re in a rapidly changing world is overwhelming.  The evidence that we have less discretionary capacity than ever to respond to that rapidly changing world is difficult to contest.  The only way that we can deal with our VUCA world is to support individuals, teams, and organisations to be more adaptable.  Adaptability must become a core capability baked into the way that we operate. 

Adaptability is not about working harder, longer, faster.  It’s about being able to respond in a radically different way to the challenges that we face year in, year out, month in month out, and the changing assumptions on which we base our lives.

Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.