Sustaining Institutional Vitality in a VUCA World

The concept of a VUCA world—one that is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous—is often used to describe the turbulent, unpredictable, and rapidly changing environmental context considered by many to be the “new normal” for higher education. Some management experts believe that to survive and thrive in a chronically turbulent (VUCA) environment, leaders at all levels will need the mindset and capabilities of an educational innovator—an agile learner and innovator who embraces and exploits change in the delivery of educational programs and services to sustain competitive advantage.

This article is organized into two parts. Part I presents the concepts of a VUCA world in the context of higher education, explores emerging leadership paradigms as a counter-response, and examines six (6) essential skills for entrepreneurial success based on research conducted by Amy Wilkinson, author of The Creator’s Code: The Six Essential Skills of Extraordinary Entrepreneurs (2015). Drawing from a decade of my experience as a higher education consultant, Part II presents an analysis of the restraining forces that work contrary to Wilkinson’s essential skills most frequently encountered at client institutions. From this analysis, six (6) axioms are posited as essential enablers to innovation and change in the higher education context, along with proven leadership strategies from the field.

Part 1: Higher Education in a VUCA World

The New Normal in Higher Education

As a higher education consultant, I routinely ask institutional leaders, “What leadership issues keep you up at night?” Not surprisingly, the responses have reflected the myriad environmental factors that oft impact the vitality of the academic enterprise—institutional image problems, changing demographics, intensifying competition, funding reductions, enrollment volatility, budget pressures, academic program relevance, to name a few. While the types of issues cited have remained fairly consistent over the years, the complexity of leadership challenges have intensified due, by most accounts, to the interconnectivity of issues and accelerating pace of change.

This complex and chronically turbulent higher education context is often described as a “VUCA” environment—a U.S. military term for a turbulent, unpredictable and rapidly changing environment that is characterized as:

  • Volatile: Change happens rapidly and on a large scale.

  • Uncertain: The future cannot be predicted with any precision.

  • Complex: Challenges are complicated by many factors and there are few single causes or solutions.

  • Ambiguous: There is little clarity on what events mean and what effect they may have before becoming disastrous.

Many higher education experts assert that the challenges presented by the global economic downturn in 2008-09, in combination with other environmental forces (e.g., demographics shifts, declines in government funding, technology innovations), have dramatically altered the terrain for colleges and universities—creating a “new normal” that requires a strategic rethinking of existing structures and operating models to thrive (Lumina Foundation, 2010).

Leadership Paradigms for a VUCA World

According to research conducted by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG, 2011), organizations that are adaptive and agile are more likely to thrive during turbulent times. In a similar vein, a report by the Center for Creative Leadership (Petrie, 2011) suggested that to lead and thrive in a VUCA context, leaders must be more adept than in the past at complex and adaptive thinking abilities, such as rapid learning and problem-solving, self-awareness, comfort with ambiguity, and strategic thinking. Indeed, even the most experienced higher education leaders may be taxed in addressing the challenges of an ever-changing (VUCA) environment.

Bob Johansen, distinguished fellow at the Institute for the Future and author of Leaders Make the Future (2012) proposed an antidote, coined “VUCA prime”, as a counter-response for effective leadership in a VUCA context. In his leadership paradigm, VUCA leaders possess:

  • Vision, the ability to communicate a clear intent of the desired future—a counter-response to volatility.

  • Understanding, the ability to stop-look-and-listen—a counter-response to uncertainty.

  • Clarity, the ability to simplify and make sense out of chaos—a counter-response to complexity.

  • Agility, via the fostering of two-way flow of power and authority across an organization to enable adaptive and rapid decision-making and action—a counter-response to ambiguity.

Other leadership paradigms have emerged in recent years that build on these concepts. For example, the notion of an educational innovator (sometimes referred to as an edu-preneur) has gained some attention. A recent EDUCAUSE Review blog referred to an entrepreneurial leader as “an enabler, one who uses their leadership skills to motivate teams to innovate and create, take appropriate risks, and not fear failure or focus too much on success when moving ideas into action” (Gray, 2016).

The leadership paradigms posited by Johansen and others are grounded in many of the principles that have long been considered critical to achieving a high performing organization. Yet, the literature is rife with references to the slow pace of change in colleges and universities despite pressures to the contrary (Armstrong, 2013). Often said assertions are presented as sweeping generalizations of the higher education landscape. However, without doubt, there is some truth to the arguments presented.

In my experience, while colleges and universities excel in generating and transferring knowledge; many fall short (at least on a systemic basis) in being agile and adaptive in creating and translating new ideas into action. Therefore, upon reading Amy Wilkinson’s book, The Creator’s Code: The Six Essential Skills of Extraordinary Entrepreneurs (2015), many of the perspectives presented truly resonated as having relevance to the higher education context.

Based on research with over 200 top entrepreneurs across diverse fields, Wilkinson observed that the fundamental skills for entrepreneurial success required daring and disciplined leadership, along with the mastery of six essential skills of an “idea creator” that can be learned, practiced, and passed-on. These included:

  1. Find the gap: Spot opportunities that others don’t see.

  2. Drive for daylight: Manage speed by focusing on the horizon.

  3. Fly the OODA loop: Master fast-cycle iteration to observe, orient, decide, and act.

  4. Fail wisely: Set a failure ratio and hone resilience.

  5. Network minds: Harness cognitive diversity to build on each other’s ideas.

  6. Gift small goods: Unleash generosity to increase productivity.

Wilkinson’s six essential skills presented a useful construct for considering two critical questions within the realm of higher education:

  1. What restraining forces work contrary to Wilkinson’s six essential skills?

  2. What strategies have proven to be effective enablers that counteract the restraining forces?

The remainder of this article addresses each of these questions from my experience in consulting with a multitude of institutions for more than a decade.

Part II: Sustaining Institutional Vitality in a VUCA Higher Education Context

Key Restraining Forces to Change

Representing Wilkinson’s six essential skills as “driving forces” for innovation and change, Figure 1 presents a Force Field Analysis (Kurt Lewin, ©1940) of the “restraining forces” that work contrary to the essential drivers most frequently encountered at client institutions. These include:

  1. Lack of strategic intelligence: Insufficient research and data to bring a systems perspective to inform institutional planning efforts.

  2. Short-term focus: Lack of commitment to a shared vision and goals over the long-term.

  3. Predisposition to a status-quo culture: Protracted decision processes, outdated policies and practices, and/or blurred lines of authority and accountability.

  4. Risk averse: