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In VUCA – Doubt Is Good, Embrace It

By visualising multiple futures and working back to the present, companies can prepare for any VUCA event. Doubt should not be seen as leading to pain and paralysis but a productive form of questioning and discovery

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I don’t know. I’m not sure. I have a doubt. We tend not to like leaders who are unsure and who take time to make decisions. Can we lead while being lost? It is certainly perplexing but centred around deep thinking. All CEOs are required to know where to go, how they will reach there and guide their organisation in reaching its objectives. Do they ready to do so? Do they craft scenarios to mitigate a challenge they are about to encounter in future? We must appreciate that the future is uncertain-unexpected-unknown. It is here where decisiveness is mandated. Decisiveness is a characteristic most valued in leaders. This was all very well during stable times and the Boards, as well as the employees, rallied behind such visionary leaders. How prepared and decisive are you? Do you have a doubt? 

Today, we can’t predict what will work to achieve the organisation’s goals or purpose. What worked yesterday might not work tomorrow. There is no fixed recipe and patterns emanating from hindsight. It is far more complex and intertwined. New problems, which have not been tackled before, require new paradigms. We need CEOs with different mindsets who encourage exploring the world around us. Leaders need to ask better questions, engage in deeper dialogues and look for fresher perspectives. Weak or distant signals are subtle clues to what's coming next. Some distant signals are audible only to you. Other signals may bypass you, but others may be listening. It is the innate quality of a leader, honing the strategic foresight, ready to counter the unexpected-unknown-unknown.  

But then some of us have a tunnelled vision, myopic and narrow in nature. We all exhibit tunnelled vision framed by filters of experience and past organisational knowledge, which might be outdated. Contemporary! No way. These filters form the foundation of our assumptions on which we build the business strategy.  In such a world, a leader with unchangeable views is bound to fall, whereas a person with a doubting mindset willing to converse, pause and reflect, revise their assumptions and eager to disrupt the status quo might succeed. The leaders, instead of pursuing what they know, should start asking what they don’t. We need not demolish these filters but learn to climb over them. To visualise new horizons, we need new maps to turn insights into action. This tunnelled vision is the outcome of wrong assumptions or presumptions and may be catastrophic in one’s journey. The aftershock is irreversible.  

Many of the old British and European firms such as Hindustan Lever have prospered in India whereas American firms have floundered. American firms enter India with a fixed mindset and premise of what works in America will equally well work here. Proctor & Gamble, Kellogg’s and more recently Harley Davidson have all bitten dust in India because they failed to study the new market with its regional and other complexities, before drawing their entry strategy. They are crystal clear in their assumptions. But were these assumptions based on the right combination of hindsight-insight-foresight?  If they had entered with doubt, clarifying these with data as it emerges, they could have formulated a reliable strategy. 

Take for example, Kellogg’s, the world’s no.1 cereal company. It entered India to revolutionise the way we eat breakfast. We have old, entrenched breakfast traditions with parathas, idli, upma, poha etc. and these foods have crossed generations and now also crossing geographies. Besides, there is a wide regional variation in the way we consume breakfast. Even 25 years after the launch of Kellogg’s in India, only a very small section of the population has been converted to corn flakes and muesli, largely upper middle-class children and the company, even after 25 years is still unsure of its future in India. And this is just a small part of tunnelled vision. Many leading enterprises succumbed with ‘me centric’ fabled vision, which did not allow to move out from a self-styled cocoon.  

Professor Bob Johansen, the distinguished Futurist writes in his book The New Leadership Literacies, “in this emerging world, the best companies will be very clear about where they are going, but very flexible about how they get there. The future will reward clarity but punish certainty.” He clearly cautions us to the dangers of certainty. In the VUCA age, there is nothing more dangerous than absolute certainty. It has sent many once sterling companies to their graves from Lehmann Brothers to Kodak. The future is going to be more volatile and uncertain thanks to climate change, cyberterrorism, pandemics, trade wars and the occasional old-style war as we are watching in Eastern Europe. More and more companies, even if they operate on a local level will face disruptions due to global events. Scientific research now shows that an absence of doubt leads to flawed decision-making. The world is in a state of constant flux and change is the only constant. As such, we think it is logical and sensible to remain open to doubt; to maintain a state of fluidity. How open and flexible are you in thinking? It is well said, one could be fooled by randomness. We can softly put this as an organizational dyslexia! 

Uncertainty is here to stay. By visualising multiple futures and working back to the present, companies can prepare for any VUCA event. Doubt should not be seen as leading to pain and paralysis but a productive form of questioning and discovery.  


Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Prof (Dr) Manoj Joshi

Dr. Manoj Joshi is a Fellow Institution of Engineers, Professor of Strategy, Director, Centre for VUCA Studies, Amity University, with 30+ years of experience in industry & research. He has authored 100+ articles, co-authored four books “VUCA in Start-ups” “The VUCA Company”, “The VUCA Learner”, “Technology Business Incubators” and is also on the Editorial Board of several international refereed Journals.

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Suhayl Abidi

Suhayl Abidi, is an MBA from FMS Delhi and Information Management from Leeds Polytechnic, UK. He is a consultant with Centre for VUCA Studies, Amity University & a practitioner in Organisational Learning and Knowledge Management with 25+ years of corporate experience including Reliance Industries, Essar and Piramal Group. He has co-authored two books “The VUCA Company”, “The VUCA Learner” and several articles

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Dr Ashok Kumar

Dr. Ashok Kumar is Ph.D with professional qualifications in Business Management & Demography with advanced training in Management at Ashorne Hill College of Management, UK and has authored books and papers. He is a consultant with Centre for VUCA Studies, Amity University and has 47 years of experience as Professor of IIM Indore, Professor at Amity University and GM in SAIL.

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