VUCA Is a Drag, So I Improvised Myself a New Acronym

So I Improvised Myself A New Acronym

Trigger warnings: Motor Neurone Disease (MND / ALS); poor improv-scene choices

Have you heard of V.U.C.A.? I’m an improviser who leads solutions-based workshops in corporate settings, so I’m often learning quirky, business-oriented terms. The latest acronym I’ve picked up is V.U.C.A. The term, cooked up by the US Army War College in the Eighties, stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity. It was used originally in a combat context and is now a descriptor that helps unpack specific business-world pinch points. I’m told that these days, due diligence on V.U.C.A. is Page One to working out how to stabilise company structures; unpick poor product or market engagement; understand social identity / self-categorisation or navigate tricky business or career paths.

The Offer Bank blog VUCA.jpg

Before we get into what V.U.C.A. stands for, let me first tell you why it resonates with me so hard. It’s because every word in it is negative. It’s a warning-system check-list that points out four potential problem concepts. Basically, it’s a downer. Hey – just like I was seven years ago!

Because learning about V.U.C.A. sent me straight back to 2012, to when I was an improv student. I was not in a good place. To be honest, I was a huge ball of pain in a room full of jolly people wanted to have fun. The reason I was such a Debbie Downer? I was dealing, 24/7, with A-grade V.U.C.A. circumstances: my mum had Motor Neurone Disease.

Hey, hang on a second – what is V.U.C.A.?
Volatility: the nature and dynamics of change. Change’s forces and its catalysts.
Uncertainty: a lack of predictability or clarity through lack of facts.
Complexity: interconnected multiplex of contexts or factors that creates interdependent confounding of issues.
Ambiguity: a lack of direction or clarity. Potential for misreads, despite having all the facts.

Looking at ‘2012 Victoria’ through this hardball microscope was tough. Either unwittingly or unwillingly, when I improvised, I mirrored the misery of my every-day. I had turned even this fun hobby into a torture rack. As a player, I was neggy and controlling. In short, I was a improv drag. Every time I came into a scene, the room drowned in buzzkill.

“Shhh, Gina! Your laughter is annoying the whole beach!”
“I don’t think you should wear that sparkly jacket, Howard.”
“Really, Sam?! You’re going to try knitting socks again? ”  

I was the person in the group that everyone has to negotiate with, walk on eggshells around or make excuses for.

I tried my best yet got it wrong, in class and on stage, week in, week out, for four excruciating years. Being a newbie player is some explanation (I fell into classic ‘consciously incompetent’ patterns of: ‘No!’ or, ‘Yes, But…’). But my mum being ill meant I couldn’t ever quite lift myself out of the gloom, no matter how hard I tried. Motor Neurone Disease (aka M.N.D. – or, in the States – Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, aka A.L.S.) is a neuro-functional nightmare that robs people of mobility, speech and life. It’s terrifying to have. It’s pretty terrifying to witness. Caring for a loved one with MND is heart-breaking. It’s also a daily V.U.C.A.-facing scenario. No wonder I was hard work to be around.

These days, I’m in a different place. I scattered my mum’s ashes in a Scottish loch and broke through to the other side. Maybe I should have given improv a rest during that whole time. But I kept going – and then took the plunge and became an improv facilitator. I love my job and I’m now very happy. Improv carried me through the worst time of my life and I’m grateful to all those compassionate teachers and players who were forced to be around my formless, infinite desperation, and who either kindly held space for me or (equally kindly) ignored me as I worked through my pain on their time and in their playground. They were the Ginas, Howards and Sams to my trauma. They all deserve ‘Yes, And’ medals.

I noticed recently, however, that when I heard of the term V.U.C.A. – a very useful, sensible scaffolding ­– it put me straight back into that old, sad, negative space. Obviously the acronym is a deeply helpful check-in when we examine our lives or careers through it. But I found that my attempts to analyse V.U.C.A. tapped instantly into my Debbie Downer improv ghost. And she’s really tiring: just ask Gina, Howard or Sam.

I decided, therefore, to pin a shield of positivity on my sleeve. Since V.U.C.A. represents what we need to manage in our businesses or our lives, I created a new V.U.C.A. with definitions that make me positive (or in improv terms: “Yes, And!”) from the outset.

V: Versatility
If volatility is the inevitable ‘nature and dynamics of change’, prepare for the inevitable with versatility. Synonyms for versatility are ‘adaptable’ ‘flexible’ and resourceful’. As my dictionary explains: ‘If you say a person is versatile, you approve of them because they have many different skills’. A wide skill-set sounds useful, so be actively, positively open-minded!

U: Uniqueness
Because uncertainty is no fun – but it is inevitable. We rarely know all the facts; the only thing we’re certain of, in that case, is ourselves. So let’s stick a flag in the sand that says, “I’m unique, real and honest: this is me.” Be yourself (authentic and present), and you’ll find you give yourself freedom to fail. Since failure is a fast-track to knowing what doesn’t work for you, you’ll find out faster what does work for you. Authenticity screams confidence.

C: Clarity and Commitment
Let’s be cheeky and replace complexity with clarity and commitment. This is because in Improv World we are never happier, either as an audience member or fellow player, than when things are simple. “Keep it simple!” our teachers shout at us. Boil down whatever your next step might be into the least complicated set of instructions possible. Be clear. Commit. I can easily get blocked through ‘big picture’ paralysis, so keep it simple, Stoopid!

A: Yes, And!
Begone, ambiguity! Hello, ‘Yes, And’. This is the cornerstone tenet of improvisation; it’s improv’s tentpole. It’s the first rule, the last rule, the simplest and most complex, all at once. My shorthand for it is: ‘Accept and Build’. If ambiguity is the enemy, then let’s accept what we do have: the facts in front of us (Yes) and then build upon them (And). It’s another simplicity exercise, really, and one that’ll remind you to stay positive against your inner Debbie Downer’s neggy vibes.

The inevitable volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity that you wrestle with daily might be in global business markets, via small-business groups, in freelance world, around your downtime or (almost certainly) in the mix and match of your (various and varied) social identities. Whatever the context, let’s pin some feel-good energy onto this sensible, serious scaffolding to help us navigate our often-tricky lives with positivity.

As I take myself ever more seriously in life and in work, I’m up for learning new terms like V.U.C.A. Hey, let’s use the US Army’s original acronym if it helps us to become more caring, better informed people. But for me, my new ‘improv’ spin feels a lot more engaging – and certainly more, dare I say it, fun.

Victoria Hogg implements positive change in business using improvisation. Visit www.theofferbank.org for information.