Problem-Solving in Our VUCA World
Bill Cottringer

“I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.” ~Alan Greenspan.

The new virtual VUCA world we are part of today requires a new set of problem-solving skills if we are going to survive and eventually learn how to thrive. VUCA is an acronym invented by the Army War College and the business world around 1987, to describe the main characteristics of the global world environment that has taken over life. VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. Each of these four driving forces are briefly explained below:


Volatility refers to the instability of the dynamics of change, including its frequency, intensity, and duration. The recent COVID-19 Pandemic exemplified this driving force in re-arranging the landscape for all of us. Today, the negative impact of change on human beings is being greatly increased by these other three forces of uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.


Uncertainty includes the problems of unpredictability and high probability of unanticipated surprises. The uncertainty principle has been well tested in quantum physics established as a fundamental quality of the entire universe. In this spirit, all the ways we try to arrange certainty by any authority from religion to science, are just temporary security blankets, until we understand that reality.


Complexity involves the confounding of issues in problems, the plethora of possible outcome influences, and the lack of a clear cause and effect chain. A good example is understanding the interaction between multiple thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and behaviors as a single, complex event with virtually an infinite number of possible outcomes. An added problem is that our brains prefer simplicity, homeostasis, and peace of mind, which are just the opposite of what these four forces bring.


Ambiguity is the vague haziness of reality confronting us with previously unknown unknowns. The Information and Technology Age is taking us all into uncharted waters without a map. Ambiguous problems involve mixed meanings and unclear cause and effect relationships. The prevalence of ambiguity is spread by language, especially the evolution of connotative word meanings with varied personal interpretations such as truth, justice, morality, love, and other words overloaded with imagined ambiguity.

The four collective VUCA forces of volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity are putting a real strain on the main mental skills we need to solve today’s problems, such as mental flexibility, agility, and creativity. Below are a baker’s dozen practical suggestions for being more successful in VUCA world problem-solving.
A Baker’s Dozen Practical VUCA Problem-solving Tips:

1. Accept the VUCA world the way it is to understand the lesson it is trying to teach us, rather than seeing it as a problem to attack, defeat or run from.
2. Practice focused mindfulness to increase acute awareness of the problem at hand in order to understand it VUCA baggage, while decreasing mind-wandering back to memories about past problems and solutions or off into the future with irrelevant or impossible expectations.
3. Practice resilience in recovering from small failures, for when you may really need it to bounce back from major setbacks. Resilience is a mental muscle that needs strengthening.
4. Give up the natural tendency to grab the low hanging fruit to satisfy success hunger, and instead work to develop the courage, discipline, and tenacity to boldly wade through the swamp of complexity fraught with minefields, to get to the profound simplicity just on the other side of complexity.
5. Develop an attitude that adversity is the best way to develop character and that inevitable conflicts and problems are opportunities for beneficial personal growth and development. A positive approach to these things seems to work better.
6. Embrace failures to understand them better and find hidden success clues that can help you improve your problem-solving abilities for the next opportunity that occurs.
7. Engage in collaboration with others to learn their secrets and look for ways to cooperate and compromise.
8. Always spend ample time reflecting upon what you are doing and appreciating intermediate progress along the way to potential solutions.
9. Einstein was very right when he said, “You can’t solve a problem, using the same thinking that created the problem. To this I might add, change problem-solving languages too.
10. Remember the Expectancy rule—you usually get what you expect, so expect the right outcome rather than the wrong one.
11. Learn to take reasonable risks to prepare for being forced to take unreasonable ones later on.
12. Break complex problems down into more manageable parts and work on the easier parts that will give you the most gains, like reversing Pareto’s 80-20 Rule.
13. Realize there are some problems that can’t be solved, like the ones which have built-in impossible contradictions, i.e., trying to move without changing positions. Instead, consider how you may be able to manage these problems more productively.

“I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but for the simplicity just on the other side of complexity, I would give my life.” ~Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Author's Bio: 

William Cottringer, Ph.D. is retired Executive Vice President of Puget Sound Security in Bellevue, WA, but still practices sport psychology, business success coaching, photography, and writing, living on the scenic Snoqualmie River and mountains of North Bend. He is also on the Board of Directors of the Because Organization, an intervention program in human trafficking. Bill is author of several business and self-development books, including, Re-Braining for 2000 (MJR Publishing); The Prosperity Zone (Authorlink Press); You Can Have Your Cheese & Eat It Too (Executive Excellence); The Bow-Wow Secrets (Wisdom Tree); Do What Matters Most and “P” Point Management (Atlantic Book Publishers); Reality Repair (Global Vision Press), Reality Repair Rx (Publish America); Critical Thinking (Authorsden); Thoughts on Happiness, Pearls of Wisdom: A Dog’s Tale (Covenant Books, Inc.). Coming soon: A Cliché a day will keep the Vet Away and Christian Psychology for Everyday Use (Covenant Books, Inc.). Bill can be reached for comments or questions at (206)-914-1863 or