It’s such a VUCA world now…

I had a day off yesterday and decided to use some of the time to think about the last few months and the way in which lockdown has taken its toll on me, my life and my training. March seems so long ago now. The first few weeks were surreal and in a way underpinned with a hopelessness. Too much was lost during those first few weeks, the daily death toll brought the intensity of the situation cruelly to mind. I spent a lot of time over the last few days thinking about my journey through this time and what I’ve felt. If you are still with me I’d like to offer my thoughts from a sporting and professional standpoint.

I’ll refer to the Kübler-Ross change curve a bit through this blog as I find it’s a good way for me to iillustrate where I am and what I was feeling over time. I’ll also use the VUCA reference and expand that to EVUCA as well. So lets start with the Kübler-Ross curve. Don’t be put off that this is, or was in fact, designed around the stages of grief, it’s been used in management etc for years and is something that I use as I develop my managers at work. So what is it, essentially Elizabeth Kübler-Ross was a psychiatrist, born in Zurich and later moved to the US. Her early life during the war is fascinating and led to a lot of the research she conducted during her career. It was her work with terminal illness (this is a really fun packed blog post so far right?) and the fact that she could find nothing in the curriculum for doctors at the time to deal with end of life situations that became the focus on her work and she set about working and interviewing those who were facing terminal situations.

Building upon her interviews and research, Kübler-Ross wrote On Death and Dying (1969), which identified the five stages that most terminally ill patients experience: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The identification of these stages was a revolutionary concept at the time, but has since become widely accepted.

Understanding the Kubler-Ross change curve - Kübler-Ross Model
ME WAKING UP AND CHECKING THE NEWS DAMAGE REPORT? Money Report Listing for  'Money' Category 1115 | Money Meme on ME.ME
Daily feeling in 2020

So that’s Kubler-Ross. VUCA is an entirely different beast. VUCA, short for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity,  VUCA conflates four distinct types of challenges that demand four distinct types of responses.

So where did it come from? A 1992 article in the Journal of Management Development by Herbert Barber titled, “Developing strategic leadership: The US Army War College experience.” describes how the U.S. Army War College decided to use the VUCA acronym as a way to help their students (typically senior military officers) characterise the turbulence they would face as they took on increasingly strategic leadership positions. The recent popularity of the acronym stems in large part from increased application within civilian sectors, as leaders outside the military have found it useful in helping them make sense of their challenges and opportunities. 

With little or no forewarning we were in a VUCA environment, I certainly remember the early days of lockdown during which my brain went into meltdown to try and manage the various moving parts that were brought to a focus during the daily briefing from Downing Street. I’ll use the meme here to describe the foreboding ahead of each awkward update. Now that I’ve had time to reflect of course this all makes more sense but at the time, I just felt like I was in an endless wash cycle and couldn’t find stability.


So what has all this got to do with training. Well now I can see that I was pretty much moving through the Kübler-Ross curve in the clearest of fashions.

When news of the first instances of the virus came to light I had months to go before my trip to Okinawa and the rumblings of a wee virus in China were that, rumblings. It was only when I started to get communications from Air China (of course I would be travelling via China) that the initial stages of the curve became known to me. Surprise. Boom, middle of the floor at work and I get an email with advice on travel through China. You see my life follows a very simple and some would say predictable series of events. Wake up, go to gym, go to work, go to dojo, go home, repeat weekly and then some weekends go to another dojo or country to train. It’s not for everyone but it is my life and I love it. Along the way I deal with the various things that life throws up but not on the scale of a pandemic.

I remember leaving the dojo for the last time and cycling home, we had closed the office a few days previously and the entire way home I promised myself that I was going to come out of lockdown fitter, leaner and with the sense of someone who had climbed their highest mountain and lived to tell the tale. Of course, nothing went to plan and I want to talk a little bit about what I observed in myself during this time. The first few weeks were intense, new experiences, new feelings and my usual life pattern had evaporated. So I was training like a maniac. I would finish “work” and head out for a run, I was part of a work Strava group and of course my competitive side came out (me… competitive?). I had a designated dojo area in the house and I was showing up at every class I could get to. Bonkers. It all felt like it would be transient. As the days went on the viability of courses started to come into question and inevitably were cancelled.

It must have taken a month before the real frustration started to kick in. The training to this point had led to injury and so motivation tanked. I was really missing people at this point and my two main sources of interaction with other humans, work and training were gone. Now one of the things that I have always done is to record my training with a heart monitor. Lack of motivation, injury and lets be honest, laziness meant that none of the figures I’d usually see were stacking up. In fact, even now, the intensity of training is less when remote. I don’t know if this is because I’m not trying to keep up with the 18 year olds in the class or because I can’t feel Sensei’s eyes on me but I did find myself switching off my camera during classes and I had to put a stop to that! The move from the frustration to depression stages are often hard to see but there was a week where I just didn’t do anything. No training, no going outside… I think my record was something ridiculous like 16 days without leaving the house. See I figured out that Deliveroo had the M&S garage down the road on their app. None of this booking Ocado slots… I would order and they would arrive in a ridiculously short period of time.

I guess everyone must have been going through something similar because in the space of a week colleagues from overseas started inviting me to different trainings but the dojo also started to come back to virtual life. I became a quiz master, I gave a lecture on Cosmology and helped Sensei out with her gradings. I had also had the experience of teaching a few times, very different to irl teaching and needing a lot more prep than I’m used to doing. I was learning how to read the room in a very different way. Trying to see how people were reacting to different techniques but also having to work on ways of training that allowed for a focus on 1-person-kumite. My own training went through lots of iterations. Welcome to the experiment phase. Of course I didn’t know this at the time. But life became easier… well sort of.

First night back in dojo

Now I’ve helped lots of people through a change process and there is usually a regularity in the actual change. Loss of job, relationship etc. I’ve not ever experienced so much in flux all at the same time and so our VUCA world becomes…Extreme VUCA world. Everything we have been familiar with, everything we have considered till now as frame of reference has been thrown out of gear. In a recent article (March 2020), two senior partners in McKinsey outlined leadership practices that could help deal effectively with the crisis viz. setting up “Network of Teams” to deal with different aspects of the crisis; maintaining “Deliberate Calm”, detaching oneself from the chaotic situation and staying calm to think clearly; “Bounded Optimism”, being optimistic while retaining a realistic perspective; “Pause – Assess – Anticipate – Act”, “Demonstrate Empathy” to all the affected parties, employees, customers, other stakeholders; and “Communication” with every individual, teams impacted by the crisis. It was at this time that I started to do yoga and to work on my own inner calmness. Was it easy… no but I set small goals (like writing my blog) and so far… I’ve stuck to them.

In the recent weeks the office has opened again and I’m seeing more and more people, I’ve even had guests over for dinner. Now that the gym is open again I can really see how much fitness and strength I’ve lost but I’ve got a plan and one of the things that I’m really enjoying is the variation. I have a rebooted appreciation for the simple things in life like going to the gym (thank God it’s open again) and I go to the office 3-5 times a week now. Monday last I went to the dojo for the first time in months, I was training on my own but I put in a hefty shift to mark the occasion.

I hope the above helps someone to see where they are within this EVUCA world. Shout if you need clarity on any of the above or if you just need to chat! x

One comment

  1. Onegaishemas Sensei. Thank you for sharing your observations about what we are going through. That really helps to crystallize the situation. You have put a lot of thought into it. This whole situation has certainly created a lot of uncertainty and unease and I am trying very hard to use this as an opportunity to reinvent myself and to grow. It is a difficult metamorphosis. Thank you for adding some more tools to my tool box so that I can get a bit of a grasp on where I am at and figure out where to go from here. All the best.

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