VUCA and the power of Emergence Teams


Advances in Project Management Series

By Dr Tom Cockburn
New Zealand


Peter A.C. Smith
Ontario, Canada

In their recent report, Deloitte (2014) asserted that the global business landscape has fundamentally changed and that business-as–usual and the previous ideas of what is Normal are a thing of the past. They imply that everyone is now working in the world of VUCA – an acronym for the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity of general business conditions and market situations; witness “Brexit” and the Trump phenomenon as current illustrations of VUCA. Nevertheless, according to McKinsey & Company (2014) this new emergent VUCA environment is “rich in possibilities for those who are prepared”, as well as pitfalls for the unprepared.

VUCA contexts mean more than complication of systemic or detailed workings. Complexity is imbued with the forces and outcomes of emergence across all business dimensions and levels, from strategic to operational. Emergence, according to Wikipedia (2015) is the process whereby a large system, entity, pattern, or regularity with singular properties evolves through interactions among smaller, simpler entities (that themselves do not exhibit such properties). The core features of emergence are: (1) Surprise or radical novelty (features not previously observed in systems); (2) integration and coherence or correlation (integrated wholes that maintain themselves over some period of time); (3) A holistic global or macro level (exhibiting some property of ‘wholeness’); (4) it is the product of a dynamical process (it evolves); and (5) it is ‘ostensive’ (it can be perceived).

In order to achieve a meaningful theoretical-practical balance for thriving in and benefitting from a VUCA world, we first focused on operationalizing Snowden’s (2007) Cynefin Framework for teams operating under emergence situations. The Cynefin framework is cited in the literature (Snowden, 2007) as a tool for a leader to use in their decision-making. Given that the Cynefin framework is a “sense-making framework that is socially constructed from peoples’ experience of their past and also their anticipated futures” and “the Cynefin framework is a sense-making one and is normally created as an emergent property of social interaction. One of the reasons for this is the need to root any sense-making model in peoples’ own understanding of their past and possible futures.”(Snowden, 2010). However, in our opinion its use solely by leaders seriously short-changes the framework’s power, and we recommend its use in team settings where conclusions drawn regarding environments and responses are emergent, enriched and reach project consensus based on team consensus or team input to the leader.

Cynefin is a Welsh word, which may be translated into English as ‘place’, although the term was chosen by Snowden (2014) to describe his understanding of the evolutionary nature of complex systems, and their inherent uncertainty – the name Cynefin is his reminder that all human interactions are emergent and determined by experiences, both through the direct influence of personal experience, and through collective experience; for example through storytelling.

The four Cynefin environments and associated recommended responses are:

  1. Known environment: Sense-­categorize-­respond
  2. Knowable environment: Sense-­analyze-­respond
  3. Unknowable environment, complex: probe-­sense-­respond
  4. Unknowable environment, chaotic: act-­sense-­respond

Many organizations categorize the environments they face without any detailed examination as known environments, assuming without further study, that the environments in question have been previously categorized. These organizations then respond by applying best practices; that is with solutions that have worked in the past. However in our VUCA business world, where complex conditions exist in virtually all business situations, Normal typically no longer applies and employing best practices without careful consideration does not take account of VUCA’s surprise factors and often produces catastrophic results. In this regard, it is noteworthy that the average longevity of S&P 500 organizations declined from 67 years in the 1920s to just 15 years today (Gittleson, 2014).


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Editor’s note: The Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books previously published by Gower in UK and now by Routledge. Information about the series can be found at https://www.routledge.com/Advances-in-Project-Management/book-series/APM


About the Authors

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Dr. Tom Cockburn

New Zealand

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Tom Cockburn
obtained his first degree with honours from Leicester University, England. Both his MBA and Doctorate were gained at Cardiff University, Wales. He has several professional teaching and assessment qualifications, including e-moderator certification and executive coaching qualifications from UK Universities and Professional bodies. He has gained additional qualifications from the Waikato Institute of Technology (New Zealand) and Hay Consulting (Australia). Tom is Associate Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Management and has experience on a number of editorial boards of academic journals and is currently Director (Policy) for the Center for Dynamic leadership Models in Global Business, established in 2012. Tom and Co-author Peter A.C. Smith have recently published a book titled Developing and leading Emergence Teams: a new approach for identifying and resolving complex business problems (2016), published by Gower.

Tom has experience as a review member of the Cutting Edge Awards Committee of the US Academy of HRD, the “Human Relations” Journal of Tavistock Institute and a member of the Editorial Review Board of the International Journal of Technology and Human Interaction. Tom also has 5 years Board experience on the Standing Conference of Welsh Management Education Centres, one year as a non-voting Trustee in K’aute Pasifika Board, New Zealand. He has carried out a number of Institutional Teaching audits in the UK. Tom also has 8 years senior academic experience as Head of a UK Business school and in a deputy Head of School role in New Zealand as well as adjunct and visiting E-faculty roles on Henley Business School (UK) and Ulster University Business Schools’ MBA and MS programs.

He is currently Director, Policy, for the Center for Dynamic Leadership Models in Global Business founded in 2012. Tom is also co-author and co-editor respectively (with Peter A.C. Smith) of Dynamic Leadership Models for Global Business: Enhancing Digitally Connected Environments (2013) and in (2014) Impact of Emerging Digital Technologies on Leadership in Global Business, published by IGI Global, as well as co-editor, with K.S.Jahdi and E.Wilson of Responsible Governance:  International perspectives for the new era (2015), published by Business Expert Press. Tom has recently co-authored a book titled “Developing and Leading Emergence Teams’ with peter A.C. Smith, published by Gower.


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Peter A. C. Smith

The Leadership Alliance, Inc.
Ontario, Canada


Peter A.C. Smith:
Peter Smith is President and CEO of the Leadership Alliance Inc. (www.tlainc.com). Since TLA’s formation in 1987, Peter has maintained a worldwide consulting practice assisting public and private sector organizations optimize their performance by enhancing their leadership capabilities.

The breadth of Peter’s previous practical hands-on management experience with Exxon has proven invaluable in ensuring that he continues to relate to the problems and pressures faced by organization in today’s complex and ambiguous global environments, and is fundamental to framing his research interests which include complexity leadership, global business, organizational strategy, socio-digital technology, sustainability, innovation, knowledge management, organizational learning, and related emerging paradigms.

Peter has served as Managing Editor of the Journal of Knowledge Management Practice, and as Consulting and Special Issues Editor for The Learning Organization; Peter has also served as Associate Editor [Practitioners) for the International Journal of Socio-Technology & Knowledge Management.

Peter has published more than 60 scholarly papers and is in demand internationally as a speaker, workshop leader, and conference chair. In 2013 IGI Global published “Dynamic Leadership Models for Global Business: Enhancing Digitally Connected Environments” which Peter co-authored with Dr. Tom Cockburn.