In 1987, leadership pundits Bennis and Nanus coined the term “VUCA” (meaning volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) to summarize the globe’s cold war realities. The term found its way into the US Army War College by 1991 and ever since it has popped up in times of turmoil —the late 90’s dotcom bust, the 2008 financial services crisis, and the pandemic onset of 2020 to name a few.

And here it is in my feed again, succinctly summarizing the chaos of 2023. I love a good acronym but decided to poke around before adding it to my ever-rotating buzzword list. In doing so, I was surprised to learn that VUCA doesn’t really mean “look out kids, it’s crazy out there.1” Even the Army points to its overuse and overgeneralization.2
Rather than a conflated term for turmoil, each component of VUCA is actually meant to be distinct. That’s key because distinct (even mutually reinforcing) conditions require distinct responses. To illustrate, let’s apply VUCA to today’s selling environment:

Volatility = a high rate of non-linear change.

Sellers are used to markets and account potential trending up or down. It’s another experience completely when sectors and companies go through sharp, unanticipated, changes in trajectory. E.g.:

♦ The tech sector laid off 170k+ employees over six months.

♦ The FDIC recently closed two failed banks, setting off concern over a banking crisis and prompting Credit Suisse to sell to UBS.

♦ Generative AI is rapidly disrupting products and markets, while raising a broad range of commercial, ethical, and practical questions.

♦ From a geopolitical perspective, the Ukrainian-Russian conflict is entering a new phase, and the overall US political theater continues to fracture into opposing segments.

Uncertainty = a lack of condition and market predictability.

Google the phrase ‘will there be a recession?’ and you’ll see continued disagreement on whether there will be a recession, when it will take place and how hard, or soft, the landing will be. This lack of agreement is compounded by unexpectedly positive job reports and a lack of consensus on desirable Fed actions. The result is a tendency among your buyers to freeze budgets and take a defensive posture and wait.

Complexity = an enormous volume of interrelated forces.

Regardless of economic factors, B2B buying has been getting more complex for years. The average tech purchase involves 6-9 decision-makers, takes over 7 months, and includes procurement 72% of the time3. Add in increased employee churn (both on the sell side and the buy side), and the buying process is a thorny labyrinth these days.

Ambiguity = the lack of precision and the potential for confusion.

Of all the VUCA elements, ambiguity is less of an issue for sales. After all, ambiguity is the very reason that sales exists. Clients have difficult problems. They’re faced with navigating thousands of potential solutions and need help finding the way ahead (ala Gartner’s “Sense Making”4.) If there were clear buyers, discrete client needs and obvious solutions, sales as a profession would disappear. All B2B sales would be executed via eCommerce. So, if the market is more confused today, then bring it on —all the more opportunity for sales teams to bring value by bringing order to the disordered.

While these four VUCA conditions reinforce each other (and render each other more impactful), they’re actually distinct, born of different drivers. So where does this leave sales organizations and their ability to respond? About ten years ago, Bob Johansen and CCL advocated for a parallel leadership framework5 to adapt to each of these distinct conditions. As a sales leader, you likely don’t control GTM decisions, but you do have the ability to provide this guidance to your teams.

Vision = a clearly expressed what and why of the organization’s direction.

In any role, employees what to know…Where are we going? Why are we going there? How will we know if we are making progress? If your sales team doesn’t know the answers to those questions, they can lose confidence in your organization and adopt a stance of ‘hunker down until it’s over’. And that’s the opposite of what you need them to do. If the organization isn’t sharing the vision, then you as a sales leader need to establish a tangible one for the scope of your sales team.

Understanding = a mutually agreed, cross-functional perspective.

One of the first things you learn in sales is that your understanding of the prospect’s needs is irrelevant until your client has the same understanding. It’s critical that sales leaders intervene as a liaison to the rest of the organization and work to keep everyone on the same page. Sellers need to have a shared understanding with marketing, revenue operations, enablement, and customer success. Only then can they piece together a reasonable perspective on markets, territories, and accounts.

Clarity = a process to make sense of conditions and inform decisions.

Studies repeatedly show that sellers are overwhelmed, and they have been for at least the last three years. One of the best ways that you can support them is finding ways to save them time. Clarity frees sellers from inefficiency and reduces the stresses of indecision. Your job as a leader is to gather all the intelligence at your disposal (partner with your RevOps team if you have one) and give clear, succinct guidance on what to do next at a team level. At the same time, ensure your sellers have similar access to intelligence to quickly build clarity at a territory and account level. (If you’re not tapping into former buyers to influence your account strategies, you’re missing out on a huge source of insights.)

Agility = the ability to quickly install, adopt, and adjust solutions.

Vision, understanding, and clarity are great. But in a VUCA market, they can’t be carved in stone. Sales leaders should get into the habit of revisiting direction, strategies, and initiatives at least quarterly. Make sure sellers know that you’re going to make the best decision you have with the information you have at that time. But it’s a test and learn approach. You’re going to try lots of things. If they work, you’ll do more of them. If they don’t, you’ll stop them. And when you have better or different information to work with, you’ll revisit the whole approach. Sellers need to expect these changes and be ready to adapt— viewing change as productive, not disruptive. (As an aside, if you haven’t looked at your hiring profile in a while, it’s a good time to do so. Make sure adaptability and change readiness are in the desired competency set.)

While the intensity of our current marketplace may tempt sales leaders to abandon strategy and long-term planning in favor of reactive and short-term activity, the best bet is to be more intentional than ever.  Sellers can win, even thrive, in a VUCA-world —but only when leaders provide the necessary supports.


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