The BANI framework offers a lens through which to see and structure what’s happening in the world. At least at a surface level, the components of the acronym might even hint at opportunities for response: brittleness could be met by resilience and slack; anxiety can be eased by empathy and mindfulness; nonlinearity would need context and flexibility; incomprehensibility asks for transparency and intuition.
– Jamais Cascio, Futurist, Institute for the Future
Covid-19 continues mutating around the globe, war has returned to Europe (on top of everywhere else it rages), and gun violence proliferates in the U.S., recently abetted by the same Supreme Court that last week overturned the 50-year precedent of Roe v. Wade (against prevailing public opinion both before and following the ruling), a decision that touches everyone in large ways and small, regardless of their beliefs about Roe. Cascades of unforeseeable consequences for generations to come are being unleashed by just these few examples, alone. How do we wrap our minds, hearts and spirits around the depth and scale and speed of the evolving unknown?
As I understand it, the acronym VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous) was coined about 30-35 years ago by U.S. business and military leaders to starkly name the difficult conditions for managing and planning within large-scale systems in the accelerating complexity of post-Cold War world. VUCA has always been a short-hand but nonetheless useful frame for describing not only the wonkiness of global change (climate, geo-political, economic, digital/AI, etc.) but also for indicating how to wake up from our modern human sleepwalk through it. People in my line of work – developmentally-informed leadership coaching, training and consulting – employ the idea of VUCA to help our clients stay alert to the risks of pretending there is any real stability, certainty, simplicity and clarity so that they can instead focus on growing their capacities for navigating through – and even thriving within – unpredictability.
In the early days of the pandemic, a futurist named Jamais Cascio published a piece called “Facing the Age of Chaos,” in which he suggests that VUCA as a descriptor is growing obsolete. “We have become so thoroughly surrounded by a world of VUCA that it seems less a way to distinguish important differences than simply a depiction of our default condition…declaring a situation or a system to be volatile or ambiguous tells us nothing new,” he says. “With a new paradigm we need a new language. If we set VUCA aside as insufficient, we still need a framework that makes sense of not just the present world but its ongoing consequences as well. Such a framing would allow us to illustrate the scale of the disruptions, the chaos, underway, and enable consideration of what kinds of responses would be useful. Ideally, it would serve as a platform to explore new forms of adaptive strategies.”
Cascio offers BANI as the fresh acronym: Brittle, Anxious, Nonlinear and Incomprehensible. This list can sound totally overwhelming, but I would argue that BANI does for individuals, organic situations and emergent movements what VUCA can still do – to some degree, at least for the time being – for big, formal organizations and agencies. To my mind, BANI points to human ways of being – inside, outside and alongside – structured entities’ adaptations to the VUCA environment. By my interpretation, BANI tells each of us not to delude ourselves that ideas/institutions/systems that are assumed to be strong are indeed strong, it emphasizes that we must slow down, it reminds us that our cause-and-effect expectations are human inventions that might not even hold true in how the universe works, and it tells us not to overvalue intellectual “knowing” with our heads. As noted in the quotation above, Cascio observes that “brittleness could be met by resilience and slack; anxiety can be eased by empathy and mindfulness; nonlinearity would need context and flexibility; incomprehensibility asks for transparency and intuition.” This is a recipe for flourishing leadership.
VUCA and BANI
It’s becoming increasingly accepted that the 20th-century “command and control” leadership paradigm was an illusion originally manufactured and leveraged by profit-centric forces for short-term gain at the expense of long-term effectiveness. I understand it: a huge human blind spot, forged in the evolution of our species’ brains, confuses dominance with security. But this myopic narrative will finish us off if we can’t open all our eyes widely enough to see the beautiful precariousness of our planetary picture. Readers of this blog are aware I believe that in leadership as in life – ambiguity is actually opportunity, complexity is wholeness, uncertainty is possibility, and not-knowing is the way of nature so therefore embracing it (i.e., a less ego-driven pattern of thinking and behaving) is to embrace the emerging future with wisdom.
We needn’t view VUCA nor BANI as threats but as a combined formula for thriving: taken together as a kind of polarity, the VUCA and BANI frameworks call for our awakening to the collective cultural transformation necessary if we are to pull ourselves back from the brink of collapse and leave to our descendants a world of possibility instead. Where to begin as a leader? Literally slow down and nurture your resilience (see a list of 12 strategies here) to keep yourself in a growth mindset. Stay connected to people (at work and at home) and to what’s meaningful to you. When you feel afraid or down, take an action step from the heart, even a very small one. Consider Maya Angelou’s advice: “Hope and fear cannot occupy the same space. Invite one to stay.”
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