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VUCA Art Leadership

Art and the VUCA World

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For those unfamiliar with the acronym, VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity.

It is a relatively trendy way to describe our modern world. It is a VUCA place.

Of course, the world has always been three of those things - volatile, uncertain, and ambiguous, and maybe all four depending on who you ask. If you asked a farmer at any time over recorded history he could tell you that his fortunes and those of his family were impacted by things out of his control. The world of most people has always been, at least, V, U, and A.

It is only recently, where we came to think of the world as NOT those three things. i.e. We could expect a certain amount of regularity, certainty, and definitiveness. But alas (or maybe not), no more.

As the pace of knowledge creation, globalization, and business speeds up we are more exposed to VUCA and we must develop ways to prepare for and manage the world.

It helps if we realize that this is a state of affairs that we evolved to deal with - the acronym may be new, but the conditions really aren't. We humans evolved to meet these types of challenges, are brains are big and we can handle the related stress, assuming we put some time and energy into it.

As for complexity, I think humans have introduced a lot more of that recently, but I also believe we have the tools to manage that.

If you're looking for somewhere to start - use the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People you can cut down by a lot of VUCA simply by focusing on what is in your power to control. Eventually you will get more power, simply by not trying to change that which you can't. Steven Covey covers that much better than I can. If you haven't read it, read it. If you read it and forgot, read it again.

There are other books that deal with this subject head on, such as Dr. Alan Watkins' 4D Leadership. In that book Dr. Watkins outlines paths to personal development that make us more resilient and more capable to deal with all the V, U, C, and A that we run into.

Beyond that though, what other tools are available to help us cope with the VUCA-ness of our present world?

I'm a firm believer that art - engaging with it, thinking about it, looking at it, trying to understand it - makes us more tolerant of the VUCA world.

Here is how art helps with each of the 4 areas:

  1. Volatility - Engaging with art a little bit every day can take you out of your comfort zone on multiple fronts and help to prepare you mentally for all those volatile challenges that you are going to face. Art itself can be volatile - as it relates to traditions or other art. And it can show us ways of grappling with volatility, such as French painters in the 19th century beginning to look at the urban landscape and explore outside the 'approved' arenas for artwork. Much of modern art is challenging and a great many people simply ignore or disregard it because it may be non-representational. Do they take the time to think about it? Do they consider why the artist wanted to challenge us as viewers?
  2. Uncertainty - art is a means of digesting and facing the challenges of the world and allowing you to see how others wrestle with things. Don't want to think about war or crime or poverty or disease? Here it comes anyway. art exposes you quite directly to another mind. That mind may be wrestling with or interested in the same things as you, but doing so in very different ways. Reading a poem written by another person or looking at a painting can help to expose you to different angles and you will not always know what is coming. Also, because the artist is not providing you with a written set of instructions, you walk into every artistic experience with a certain degree of uncertainty that is instructive if you are willing to open up to it.
  3. Complex - Art can deal with complex topics and it can be, in and of itself, quite complex. Re-reading or extended observation is often key. To really appreciate, sometimes, frankly, to understand, you need to spend some time to appreciate the art, maybe do some additional research on the subject matter. This is helpful to get us ready to ask questions and understand the complex systems and situations we confront. Move beyond your first impressions, move beyond your initial read. Re-evaluate, think, engage.
  4. Ambiguous - Some art may attempt to get a hold of a subject and tie it down for explanation, but most art rarely does this. We are given the artist's point of view, but that point of view can be ambiguous. Even when it isn't ambiguous, our own reaction may be. Self-reflection and self-evaluation help us to grapple with such ambiguity. Do I agree with this? Would I have written it this way? Does this help?

This is not how art or art appreciation is taught, but it is how I have used it and I have found it useful.

At times, with the best work that you encounter, you can find an antidote to all this VUCA-ness. A well written book or poem that speaks to you deeply can make the world seem suddenly clear and not ambigous at all. Great art can lift you up and offer you new ways of seeing things. You won't find this all the time or in every interaction, but when you do it is a powerful and uplifting.

Even when you don't encounter this feeling, you can still improve your faculties and increase your mental resilience by engaging with and thinking about a difficult topic.

A few resources worth considering:

  1. Look around - nearly everywhere you go has some artwork on display: photogrpahs, paintings, sculpture. Take some time to look at this stuff and think about it. Take a notebook with you, write things down.
  2. Review You High School/College Syllabus - was there a book that you hated? Why did you hate it? Read it again as an adult and see if there is wisdom there that you overlooked.
  3. Poetry Dail - I'm partial to Poetry Daily. They publish and re-publish the best of contemporary poetry. With a new, very good poem every day. It is worth the time, and it is always there, offering something new and challenging.

Not every piece of art will speak to you. Not every book will help. But every artwork can be turned around in the mind and examined for the resources it provides. If you find none, your mind has spent time engaged in an activity that strengthens it and which can provide you meaning in itself.

Featured

Leadership Technology Management Management

Manager - 2020

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You're my manager and a leader in my organization. Could you please:

  1. Understand my Work
  2. Recognize great work when it is done by myself and others
  3. Listen more, ask more questions, talk less
  4. Be willing to have hard conversations (with me and with other leaders), when necessary
  5. Be a defender of positive energy, in all situations
  6. Bring energy and enthusiasm to spare so that you can lift up the whole team, when things are difficult
  7. Help to find solutions in difficult situations
  8. Predict the Future
  9. Create a balanced space where I can be a whole person, but be protected from too many messy impacts from other people
  10. Allow me to innovate and create room for innovation within our organization
  11. Help non-specialists understand my special work and what makes me special
  12. Offer feedback at the right moment - hitting me with constructive criticism when I am walking out of successful meeting takes away from the success of the meeting, find a better time even if you have to wait
  13. Encourage me to stretch
  14. Pick me back up again, when I have failed, encourage me to try again.

I work in technology, so maybe some of this stuff is specific to the tech world, but I don't really think so.

I have been asked for number 8 on multiple occasions, and I've also been asked to help people get better at predicting the future. We came up with a system for it, but of course it was imperfect.


Number 9 may be the hardest one to do. This is more difficult than predicting the future (if you work in a rational organization people will understand that you're doing your best to predict the future and that it is hard).

Even rational organizations may struggle with understanding why we need to let people have rooms to be their whole selves at work.

We need whole people to show up at work because we need their energy and innovation and you get this most effectively when people feel comfortable being who they are. You also have to have some order and some sanitizing and professionalism. This can be a tricky balance. Sometimes people's whole person is messy.


There were several things I deleted off this list that fall under the category of hard conversations.

Setting realistic goals is one of those things. We are often put under pressure to pursue unrealistic goals, a manager needs to push back on the unrealistic and make sure other leaders understand the trade-offs.

Another thing I removed was focus on the long term. Long-term sacrifices in favor of short-term gains are something we should consider carefully. A good manager will daylight the long-term costs and push for what will make his teams lives better in the long run.


Five and Six are different. Defending positive energy may not be a completely positive act. Once the act of defending the positive energy is done, you need to then supply positive uplift to bring everyone back up. The defense and uplift require two different approaches.


Vision is not on the list because this is a list about management.

Almost all leaders are managers, and all managers are leaders in some fashion.

But not all managers are visionary leaders. That skill can be learned, but it isn't required to be a great leader of people.


Is this hard to do? It is very hard to do everything well on this list, but then many things worth doing well are hard.

Providing everything on this list as a team is OK - it may be too much for any one person to do all of it. If you work with a great leadership team it may be that

Even still, you will probably feel a bit like the leader in the picture, at times. That is, isolated. Seeking other managers and leaders with whom you can share your insights and challenges is critical.

You will probably stumble. You will make mistakes. Being resilient isn't on the list, because we all need that in the VUCA world, not just managers.

Managers have to be resilient for others, as well as themselves, that is why we have 14.

Featured

Leadership Technology

Understanding the Thing that Didn't Happen

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I was using a social media tool the other day and it recommended about 25 articles in a row about some electoral politics in a different country.

This was essentially the same story, 25 different times.

I didn't click on any of them because I post very few articles on politics.

So, my lack of engagement with a topic that they thought (for unknown reasons) that I would be interested in should have been considered a significant 'No' vote. I voted 'no' on the same thing, 25 times. This is the way it happened in my head.

Will they be smart enough to pick up on this? Are they aware of the things that I don't do?

We're all aware of the old adage - 'The squeaky wheel gets the grease.'

My squeak, as it were, was pretty significnat. But it was a no action squeak, which would not be measured unless someone was looking for it. And had analytics or code written to look for it.

Of course you'll always see the end result of this - when someone votes with their feet or dollars or clicks to go somewhere else. But will you know why? Or will you only feel their departure?

Featured

AI Technology Leadership

AI Resources - TensorFlow

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I mentioned in an earlier post some free Amazon resources that are available for managing AI projects - I think those are really valuable and they are still available here:

ML for Business

These are really good for getting an overview of what a typical machine learning project looks like.

If you are interested in going a little more in depth and seeing the guts of what machine learning looks like it is worth taking a look at the TensorFlow tutorials:

TensorFlow Tutorials

There are five links on the bottom of the page that will take you to 5 different tutorials, I'm currently on the third, but it is very educational.

In one sense, these aren't for the faint of heart. They are really doing real machine learning, and if you're like me, you won't understand some of it. That's OK.

You need to look past a few things you don't know and just plow ahead they really do give you a great idea of how machine learning actually works.

Unlike the Amazon courses, which don't really require any prerequisites, you probably need some experience with development tools to get through the TensorFlow tutorials. They require that you are comfortable clicking a Play button like you run across in development environments, and sometimes you are kicked back warning messages that you have to look at, stomach, and promptly ignore.

While I've tweaked a couple of print statements to get the notebooks to show me different stuff, I'm really not messing with the core of what the notebooks do. I can generally make sense of it, but I don't have the skill to change the core logic of what these are doing.

I actually very much appreciate the concept of the notebook - it forces documentation into your work in a much more direct kind of way than traditional programming where comments and documentation are often an afterthought. Every example I've come across has had lots of helpful information (they are tutorials) and the text that is presented alongside the code is indispensable.

If you want to know more about machine learning, and you aren't afraid to see how the sausage gets made, it is worth checking it out. Highly educational.

Featured

Leadership Software Development Agile

Software Product Owner - Do I Need One?

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The most effective Product Owner I have ever worked with did not have that title. I mention this at the outset of the post merely to say that titles don't really matter that much. What matters is the role itself and organizational empowerment to do the job right.

You have a Product Owner because you want to go fast and develop great software. If you don't have one you are making the choice to go slow, which is always a bad idea. You may develop great software anyway, but it will take longer than it needs to.

The product owner is a critical role in modern software development. The Product Owner’s role is to supply the following to the development team:

  • Product Vision
  • Release Vision
  • Feature Backlog
  • Prioritization
  • Decision Making

Effective Product Owners work with stakeholders (usually customers, executives, business decision makers, and visionaries) to supply an effective workstream for their projects. Very often good Product Owners are neither the visionary nor an executive, but are someone with the ability to manage those people and the guts to make decisions about the product.

Ineffective product owners are too busy doing other things to be bothered with the day-to-day decision making of the team and leave questions unanswered for long periods of time, delaying the work.

Effective product owners manage and participate effectively in two work cycles:

  • The Development Sprint Cycle (usually 2–3 weeks) A good Product Owner makes time to attend important meetings and answer questions for the team doing the work.
  • The Product Development Backlog Cycle – A good product owner is constantly working with business stakeholders and customers (end-user customers) to understand what is working and what isn’t.

Ineffective Product Owners don’t spend the time necessary to get their product backlog prepared. This leaves their teams unable to plan or estimate work – delaying progress, de-motivating their teams, and creating blind spots in cost and timeline for their projects.

Effective product owners work hard to understand their competitors and customers, they know their place in the industry and where they are trying to go. Being an effective Product Owner is typically a full-time position, I seldom sees a product owner that can handle owning more than 1 product, and I have never seen one able to effectively handle more than 3.

Featured

Agile Software Development Agile Leadership

Decision Making and the Role of the Product Owner

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I just completed my Scrum Certified Product Owner training and certification class here in Boulder. It was a really excellent class taught by scrum guru Mike Cohn.

I learned a lot about how to do the expectations for the role of product ownership, and lots of techniques and processes for how to do the job effectively. The class was very engaging with a good mix of instructor-led content and group activities.

One of the most significant aspects of being a Product Owner in scrum is making decisions and prioritizing work.

Here are some things that will make it difficult to do the job effectively:

  1. You aren't given the authority by your organization to make decisions for the product.
  2. You don't give yourself the authority to make those decisions.
  3. You have a hard time making any decisions.

Number 1 on the list is something that you can do something about, and we spent time in the class discussing it.

If you are undercut by superiors or colleagues, you need to address that with the superiors and colleagues. Often times they may not be aware of it, in which case simply brining it up is enough to make a difference.

In other situations you may need to understand the why of the situation and seek to improve your understanding of the business or your boss vision. Then when you are on the same page you will have less conflict and less decisions that have to be revisited.

If the your boss, colleagues, or team leadership fundamentally doesn't trust you or anyone to make those decisions - seek alternative employment.


But what about 2 and 3? I wrote a recent post about absence of emotion in decision making.

Similar things apply here. If you believe that you can be an effective product owner and make the necessary decisions based solely on data, abstract principles, and rational thinking, you will run into problems. You will never have enough data to make all the decisions you have to make NOW.

You can have the data in 3 months, but the world may have passed you by then.

An effective Product Owner is going to Know a Lot - they will know the domain, they will know the analytics, they will know the users (some of them personally). They will use all of these things to make decisions.

But they won't (and can't) know everything. Even if you could know everything today, you wouldn't know everything tomorrow.

And when you don't know everything, you will have to make decisions in the absence of data. In these situations, you need to know your instincts and trust your insight to guide you.

And trusting your gut means listening to and understanding emotions - and being able to defend that decision. Whether you call it trusting your gut or rapid cognition you will need some of it to be an effective product owner.


If you aren't used to working this way, then you can choose to focus on the activities that will make your insights and intuitions more informed - learn things, focus on data, know as much as you possibly can.

Then when you need to make a judgement call, you will have a solid foundation that you have built upon to get there.

But when the time comes, you will need to decide in the absence of data, and you may have to argue your point, so be ready to put some feeling into the discussion and push for what you think is the right answer.


When you find yourself in such a situation, the best and easiest way to handle this is to recognize that this is the situation are in: You don't have enough data, you will need to make a recommendation and push for what you think is right.

I find that simply acknowledging the situation as such - whether externally, internally, or both - is very helpful.

It is also helpful to remember in these situations that most bosses want someone who will make a strong recommendation and push for what they think is the right answer.

They will see you as providing decisive leadership and be able to back you up in your recommendation, without needing to get deeply involved in the data, details, or weeds. You are smart and well-informed, it's your decision to make as the product owner.

If you run into headwinds here then the same recommendation applies as above: seek to understand those headwinds, adjust if necessary, continue making recommendations based on the best data available.


You may be wrong.

We're all wrong sometimes.

Being wrong is an opportunity for further introspection and learning. Accept it as such, make further adjustments and move on.