Students at the United States Army War College started using the acronym VUCA to describe the context of the post Cold War era. Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity all reached a new height after this era.The concept was applied to business in Bob Johansen’s 2009 book, “Leaders Make the Future.” What happens if we think about VUCA in the human services sector?   

Volatility indicates that change is fast-paced and the magnitude of change is large. The rapid movement of the Coronavirus across the planet, its impact on the health and well-being of humanity, and the social and economic impacts it had are a great example of how fast the world we live in can change.  

If anyone knows of an organization whose SWOT analysis included a global financial crisis in 2008 or a global pandemic in 2020, please let me know. However, if we acknowledge that there is a lack of predictability and reliable information about the future direction, whether it is economic, social, or political, then any SWOT analysis is limited in what they can provide. Uncertainty makes it difficult to really put a stake in the ground with regard to specific strategies. 

Complexity arises from the large number of institutions and individuals who are working together on an issue. No one organization can solve some of the challenges faced in meeting human needs. Organizations work interdependently with each other and change in one organization can impact others who make up that system. Some organizations are needed to “give a man a fish” and others are “teaching a man to fish.” Both are needed to some degree but both have different approaches and philosophies to how they provide hunger relief. And what about the fact that there are no fish in the river? How does that complicate matters? 

Ambiguity emerges when different perspectives and beliefs prevent a shared understanding of trends and/or causal relationships. For example, one of the only regular data points used to measure homelessness is the Point-In-Time Count. Its limitation of undercounting those who are homeless in a community is known and discussed, yet it is still one of the most used measures to describe the state of homelessness in the community. 

The assumptions going into a traditional strategic plan may completely miss the mark.

In essence, VUCA introduces dimensions that static documents created in annual retreats cannot adequately capture or organize around. Priorities, optimal interventions, budgets, and growth projections can all become rapidly outdated. Instead Partners for Impact works with organizations to build a living strategic plan enabling the organization  to shift based on real-time assessment from those on the frontlines of community needs. This allows more emergent and collaborative responses while retaining focus on the core mission and objectives