VUCA – Navigating The Unknown

How a post-Cold War phrase inspired a COVID-19 business leadership approach

Embracing Constraints

Volatility + Uncertainty + Complexity + Ambiguity. Post-Cold War uncertainty inspired these four elements collectively named “VUCA” by the U.S. Army War College in 1987.

The idea of VUCA draws upon the leadership theories of Warren Bennis, a pioneer of leadership studies, and Burton (Burt) Nanus, an early developer of many management concepts. In addition to post-Cold War uncertainty, warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq also evoked descriptions involving VUCA.


I only recently came across the concept, and it put a name to what I’ve witnessed throughout my life. We’re all facing these four elements straight on through the continuing impacts of COVID-19.

VUCA benefits

Even in the middle of a pandemic, manufacturers continue to innovate. This includes adjusting the number of SKUs to make production more efficient while limiting the number of changeovers. As food shortages begin to decrease, manufactures are left with successful examples of how to increase productivity and efficiency even under extreme constraints. Success breeds confidence and lifts the workforce who remain on the front lines.

baking machinery producing cookie dough

VUCA negatives

It’s difficult to assess risk and test out scenarios with reduced timeframes and ongoing unknowns. Everything must happen in real time and organizational players may not be willing or comfortable with accepting the risk that comes with extreme changes. Fear may prevent the best ideas from timely implementation because of an unwillingness to disrupt the status quo.

Overcoming Hurdles

The A in VUCA is for ambiguity. These times throw a harsh spotlight on what gets done when ambiguity disappears. It’s now clear how important the need for a strong food supply chain. Snack foods and bakery items are now categorized as essential. Baking manufacturers are on the front line of this evolution as they manage countless new elements of VUCA.

The Food System

BEMA members are a necessary partner in filling emptying shelves. You are navigating unprecedented stressors on the food supply chain. The baking manufacturing industry shined these last two months. You showed us how flexible you can be by filling and shipping orders where they needed to be most urgently.

As our members face and navigate their own levels of VUCA, you’re instinctively finding new ways to operate through uncertainty and discomfort. There’s an excellent chance this head-on collision will create innovative ideas, revamped leadership and economic opportunities.

Forward Focus

What does this mean for the future of our industry and BEMA members? How can BEMA provide support, education and training in what many anticipate will be a new world post-COVID-19?

While it’s not the time to consider these ideas fully yet, I want to plant a seed for future discussion. When the dust settles, what, if anything, do you intend to carry forward and continue?

Did you learn anything about sanitation, scheduling, security or staffing that is worth sharing with your industry peers and/or implementing as a permanent change?

When we come out of isolation, BEMA looks forward to exploring ways to synthesize these learnings of how our members managed through VUCA to come out on the other side, stronger and more efficient.


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