VUCA in Intercultural Teams (Notes from Summer Institute of Intercultural Communication, 2012)

Developed by the US Army War College in the '90s, this acronym describes the battlefield that troops find themselves in every day:

Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous.


Terry Brake from TMA presents a leadership model of Vision, Influence, and Strategy that meets each of the four with a reacting force:

Volatile - Vision

Uncertainty - Understanding

Complexity - Clarity

Ambiguous - Agility

Collaboration is necessary for a group to develop each of the responses to VUCA listed above.

From the VUCA/leadership combination as a starting point, how do we create teams that ensure each of these responses are covered?

Can these teams be self-aware about which members are expected to contribute the most to each response? One that specializes in vision and understanding, another in understanding and clarity, another in agility, mixes and matches between them? Can we assign one person to be the one who 'ensures' that "vision" is done, for example? How far can we specialize, strip out tasks to keep all members of the team operating at the most effective way.

The problem with that is that you have to have an idea of each of the first three in order to know you have a good vision: Vision is based on understanding and clarity. So the person who ensures that the vision is 'there' (appropriate, good enough) might not be the person who primarily develops the vision. Creation and collation are thus separated.

The Diamond of Participatory Decision Making

The next thing that Terry Brake talks about is the "diamond of participatory decision making" by Sam Kaner et al, that you start with Business as usual at the narrow left end of the diamond, go into a growing Divergent Zone, and spend most of your time in the "Groan Zone" at the largest portion of the diamond, full of repetition, disorientation, insensitivity, and defnesiveness, before moving to the Convergent Zone and ending at a decision point with the Closure Zone.

Brake gives four words that are crucial for navigating this process, in order: Engage, Exchange, Evolve, and Employ.

The 6 Success Factors for Intercultural and Virtual Collaboration

A framework for collaborating based on Terence Brake's work with a French/Japanese merger.

Cooperation - Trusting relationships across the boundaries of geography, time zone, culture, and so on.

Convergence - Shared purpose, priorities, and direction.

Coordination - The roles, responsibilities, tools, processes, and methods.

Capability - Ability to leverage the experience, skills, and information the team has.

Communication - shared understanding (verbal, written, etc.)

Cultural Intelligence - Ability to include and value different styles.

In most teams, communication is one of the lowest factors. "If you want people to work together, you get them working" - so Terence created small working groups to help people make decisions: Communicate, Plan, think about leadership. He would send those working groups out with a laptop, they would select a scribe to record, and create operating agreements around how they would make decisions.

Their findings would go on a memory stick and be shared with the whole group. They would give their response, ask for explanations, and reach a consensus in the end.

Of course, that wasn't enough, they had to dig deeper: At the end of 2 days they would leave with a record of the operating agreements that they made for each other. Terence would follow up 3 months later, send them the 6 C's questionnaire again, and do a virtual session with them: France, Japan, and the United States.

In that session, they would go through results. For instance, "in the previous form you said Convergence wasn't what its supposed to be, but in the latest one that has improved. What happened there?"

The French and Japanese teams had quality controls, but no way to go beyond the task to the team collaboration process, no way to ask "How are we collaborating, and how are we going to collaborate?"

An interactive experiential training exercise.



The rapid rate of change in information and situations. These require adaptive decision making and better ways to anticipate the future. In his segway from VUCA to the Vision/Influence/Strategy Triangle of leadership, Brake says that one way to better anticipate the future is to create it.


"The inability to know everything about the current situation," difficulty predicting the effects that a change implemented now will have on the future. "Leaders must be willing to take measured and prudent risks, assess risk accurately, and develop risk management strategies."


Cause and effect relationships are more complex in a a growing, global, and technologically connected world. "Leaders must avoid the temptation to address symptoms quickly and apply short-term solutions."


Difficulty in identifying what is significant in many situations, or even difficulty just understanding what is happening. This is different from uncertainty because uncertainty focuses on the future, and ambiguity focuses on the current situation. Increased chance of misreading a situation by choosing the wrong interpretation from multiple possible interpretations. Observers may have insufficient mental models to make sense of the situation. "Leaders need to create a climate of openness and questioning to uncover different perspectives."

All unattributed quotations are from Terence Brake, 'Do You Speak VUCA? (pronounced 'voo ka')' - Mindlines, September 19, 2011