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How the Return of VUCA can be Turned into Competitive Advantage with Organsational Development Expertise

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This article was co-created in discussions between Daggerwing Group and Virgin Media O2 colleagues as we explored the future role of Organisational Development within a broader area of people-centred change management.  

Volatility. Uncertainty. Complexity. Ambiguity. It’s safe to say that VUCA is back.  

From the exceptional external pressures such as the war in Ukraine, and the steady advance of climate change, to the internal pressures organisations are facing to revamp their business models and address new technologies and talent demands…organisations, leaders, and employees are being hit from every angle.  

Navigating this environment of change and uncertainty can create tensions within organisations that are felt at the individual, team, and enterprise levels. If left unaddressed, these tensions can turn into harmful conflict that has detrimental effects on employee performance.  

When trying to remedy these tensions, the area of change management that specializes in driving a solution is Organisational Development, which is increasingly caught between the duality of their role to improve employee experience, and the need to accelerate business change for the board.  

Organisational Development is best placed to surface, and manage these tensions at all levels so the disconnect between the needs of employees and the business doesn’t multiply. 

 So, what’s happening at the enterprise level to create these tensions? 

First, fast-paced and ambitious transformations are being pushed through that are often deficient in a people-centric change approach. Leaders are changing operating models and processes so regularly that it is difficult to keep up. Whether they’re staying true to their original vision or developing a new purpose in support of a new direction, organisations are busy adapting to remain competitive. Leaders are changing operating models and processes so regularly that it is difficult to keep up.  

 In many cases, this means getting stuck… 

  • … on the numbers, where too much emphasis is being put on what gets reported on, rather than the actual impact on the people. 
  • … on the calendar, where arbitrary dates and deadlines rule decisions. 
  • … on PowerPoint, where the focus is on what looks good on paper while ignoring or underplaying the organisational reality.  

Second, the expectations employees have about what their organisations should provide are becoming more difficult to meet. Now, many employees are prioritizing purpose-alignment, flexible working conditions, and well-being. Yet, many organisations are backtracking on what they offer causing a disconnect between employees and the organisation. 

What does this mean for leaders and managers? 

Leaders and managers are struggling to deliver change without adequate support. In response to the ever-changing and ambiguous climate, managers might resort back to comfortable and outdated management styles that used to be successful to reinstate control and certainty when they don’t have the answers. 

Though this is a natural tendency, it poses a risk to transformation success, business performance, and engagement levels. If leaders and managers don’t receive the support they need to deliver people-centric change, they will struggle to lead their teams on the change journey, while delivering business performance. 

How does this affect individual employees? 

For individual employees, there is so much change and ambiguity happening, it’s proving difficult to bring their optimal selves to the workplace. Different moments call for different types of thinking (diagnostic, strategic, ideational, contextual, etc.), and the increasing complexity of the organisational reality makes it harder for employees to pause and react intentionally.  

In addition, they may be experiencing a say/do gap from their leaders and managers as they struggle to implement change. This, coupled with rolled-back post-pandemic working conditions can lead to increases in disengagement, well-being issues, and even turnover. 

So, how can Organisational Development reframe VUCA and relieve tension?  

With VUCA once again on the rise, we believe Organisational Development can help to turn it into a competitive advantage – reframing it from a problem to be fixed to an opportunity for collective awareness, sense-making, and experimenting; an opportunity for innovation, diversity, and improved performance. But what could this look like in practice? 

1. Holding leaders and managers accountable. Through constructive dialogue and conflict management, Organisational Development must challenge leaders and managers on their approach to change and highlight the potential impacts on their employees. They can help to uncover blind spots and create space that will allow leaders to pause and reflect helping them to avoid running into task mode and thinking about whether they are focusing on the right challenge. This will improve the impact they can have on their teams and on the organization. 

2. Strengthening empathy. Through coaching and creating space for interpersonal connections beyond the work, Organisational Development can help reduce the sense of isolation and enable leaders and managers, as well as employees, to better empathise with each other. Asking the right questions will enable the right mindset and behaviour change. Also, by giving everyone a chance to collaborate, people can shift their focus on points of common need, rather than points of difference. 

3. Embedding an adaptive mindset. Through experimentation, appreciative inquiry, and collaboration with L&D, Organisational Development can alleviate individuals’ feelings of being stuck or trapped. It helps to think of our brains as muscles rather than simple input-output machines, and through adequate support and training in leveraging personal strengths and insights, employees are better equipped to deal with the challenges of constant change.

4. Amplifying the employee’s share of voice. Through user-centred design, Organisational Development can ensure employees are involved in making change happen, that they are and feel heard, and that their needs and requirements are transparently considered in any change solutions affecting them. In the process of delivering change, Organisational Development must pay attention to the accidental culture that can emerge, ensuring it is aligned with the overarching vision.

Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity are unavoidable. With so many uncontrollable external factors companies are bound to experience internal turmoil. Organisationl Development can assist in mitigating ongoing tensions through small interventions that can result in major changes to employee engagement, performance, and even turnover over time 

Andy is a Senior Principal and a member of the global leadership team at Daggerwing Group. In his role, Andy serves as a source of strategic counsel to Executives of many of the world’s largest companies facing major business transformation challenges – from mergers, acquisitions, and spin-offs, to enterprise-level changes to culture, ways of working, and operating models. A specialist in the people side of change, Andy brings almost 20 years of experience helping drive Executive Alignment, leadership change readiness, and effective employee engagement to ensure change happens and sticks. Andy is an active speaker, thought leadership writer, and catalyst for service innovation within Daggerwing. In his spare time, he is on a quest to try every cheese the UK produces.
Adrian is Head of Organisation Development at Virgin Media O2 where he works with a range of teams, leaders and programmes to develop and improve organisation effectiveness. Adrian previously worked as a consultant and in a number of in-house teams around the fields of org design, change management and team development.
Ladina is Head of Workforce Transformation at Virgin Media O2 where she works with senior leaders on a portfolio of initiatives managing the end-to-end delivery of transformation. Ladina has previously run a boutique organisational performance company and held a series of corporate roles in strategy, product development, process improvement & org design.