In this post, we will talk about the concept of VUCA. If you are not familiar with it, I recommend that you read my post Five emerging concepts in agile beforehand for a short overview.
The idea that we live in a VUCA (Volatile Uncertain Complex Ambiguous) world has been making its way into the business world for a few years now. It has been used to measure how stable (or not) and known (or not) any given context actually is.
It is human nature to seek stable and known environments, often to the point of blinding ourselves to variability in order to maintain an illusion of stability. By ignoring the variability that is there, we are not doing ourselves any favor. It simply means that we will be woefully unprepared when our artificial bubble of safety bursts under the pressure.
Since it is natural for us to seek stability, living in a VUCA world requires some training. In this post, I will show you how we can train for high VUCA environment in business using an old human training tool: games.
Translating games to the workplace
Games, by nature, have very limited stakes. Real-life situations have much higher stakes and shouldn’t be approached lightly.
To use a radio metaphor, the problem with high VUCA situations is that the noise to signal ratio is very high. There’s so much information that needs to be tracked and understood that we lose the significant information (the signal) drowned in all the insignificant information (the noise).
High VUCA situations can be unnerving and confusing because of the sheer amount of noise. The more noise, the less we understand a situation. The less we understand, the higher the stress. High VUCA environments are like high VUCA situations, just longer-lasting. We can say that working in those environments simply requires nerves of steel, but that’s just unfair. Those nerves of steel would require being sustained almost indefinitely, something human beings are not built for. We can be good with a short burst of stress, but extended bouts grind us down.
While gaining control of high VUCA environments might never be possible, a clear head and a sense of confidence build through experience in the face of chaos will give you the right tools to react appropriately. Even in very high VUCA situation, there are some dynamics that can be observed and understood, if you know what to look for.
That’s where games are useful. They teach you to learn to look for signal amongst the noise, in chaotic but ultimately safe conditions. By teaching you to recognize signal, they help cut through stress-generating noise.
Let’s start with something simple.
Low VUCA training with chess
The time-tested game of chess is the ultimate low VUCA simulator. In this 1400 years old game, two players measure up against each other using their wits and their predictive ability to win. With no randomness and a high enough complexity as to be unsolvable, chess is seen as a great equalizer (with only Go being better at it).
Chess is a low uncertainty game. The objective of the game never changes: checkmate the opponent’s king by placing it under an inescapable threat of capture. Players will always take turns consequentially. Pieces always behave the same way from game to game.
Chess is a low ambiguity game. The rules for the game have been very stable for the past 1200 years and are well-known to players. Chess is a perfect information game, meaning that no part of the game is hidden in any way. Both players have access to the exact same information at any given time.
Chess is a low volatility game. The first two sets of characteristics make chess a predictive game, meaning that players will actively try to predict an influence their opponent’s future moves. While the game dynamics will change during play, good players will see these changes coming and will make decisions that will influence those changes.
Chess is a medium-low complexity game. There are 1043 legal positions in chess, making the game practically impossible to solve (to know the perfect series of moves to win every game). The interactions between pieces, however, are well known, never changes and are devoid of randomness or surprises. For all of its legal positions, this makes the game just complex enough to keep things interesting, but no more.
Players take turn trying to create irresistible choices for their opponents, choices that cascade into one another to weaken the opposing player, trapping him a little bit more each time by removing his options, by capturing his pieces and maneuvering him using the board’s edges and your own pieces. The skill of the players at out-predicting and out-maneuvering each other is all that matters.
In business terms, this would equate to always making the same product following the same process, with no variance for seasons, no variance for raw material price or availability, no variance for customers habits or loyalty. Predictive planning is easy in those environments, and seeking efficiency at all costs will not expose you to many risks. But honestly, do you know many industries like that? Even something as stable as garbage collection suffers for seasonality (well, at least here in Canada) and human factors.
Chess is a great game and a valuable tool to learn simple causality and predictive planning. But the world is not neat like a chessboard. The rules are not always clear, situations change often and to a varying degree, and other players lie and cheat. This is why predictive planning — the main planning strategy of most businesses — fails so often.
To get a better understanding of today’s business world, we need to understand semi-random dynamic causality. We need to learn to analyze constantly. We need to learn to rely on what we see rather than what we think we know.
We need Cosmic Encounter.
High VUCA training with Cosmic Encounter
Cosmic Encounter is a science-fiction strategy game that has been very influential in the field and remained popular ever since its first publication in 1977. With asymmetrical gameplay, near infinite combination of gameplay elements, randomness, and the ever-present human factor, no two games of Cosmic Encounter can ever be the same.
This game is a great high VUCA simulator as the number of varying game elements and the rhythm of those variations creates some short-lived stable opportunities amidst bursts of volatility. Each player will be affected differently by those, meaning that every player must remain aware of his current situation and infer the situation and possible strategies of other players based on incomplete information. Predictive planning is bound to fail, and trusting in chaos is suicidal. Cosmic Encounter is about the opportunistic capitalization of emergent short-term strategies.
The game has a simple set of rules and a simple goal: players compete to build 5 space colonies on planets outside their solar systems. Any pretense of simplicity stops right there however, as pretty much every other aspect of the game introduce some variance and unknowns.
Cosmic Encounter is highly uncertain: The game can be played by 3 to 5 players (up to 10 in some versions). Each player controls one (well, usually) alien race with its own unique (again, usually) power that breaks the rules in some way. Each player has a (variable) hand of cards, each influencing the game in some way. Plays in the game are either random, semi-random or non-random (depending on type) and their randomness can follow a variable rhythm.
Cosmic Encounter is highly complex: Alien powers, Encounter cards, Artifact Cards, Flare cards, alliances and cosmic events (such as cosmic quakes and hazards) can all affect each other and several of those can stack or cancel one another. Players bring their own personalities and relationship in the mix.
Cosmic Encounter is highly ambiguous: The basic rules, the situation on the board and the cards in play are shared information available to all. But each player has a variable number of cards in hand, which are not revealed to other players until they come into play. Nothing a player says is binding, so misinformation abounds. Even pleas for help can turn out to be traps.
Cosmic Encounter is highly volatile: Technically, the game can be won within a single turn although I have never heard of anyone pulling that off. The current dynamic of the game can (and will) change dramatically with the play of a single card, or more frequently by several cards played by several players at once in an insane combination that no one could ever see coming.
Cosmic Encounter has the right balance between method and madness. It teaches you to analyze situations quickly and accepts unknowns. It teaches us not to rely on anything for long, but to capitalize on fleeting opportunities whether you created them or saw them emerge.
A good Cosmic Encounter player is used to cutting through noise and looking for what pass as signal at this very moment. It can’t turn a VUCA situation into a walk in the park, but it will help revealing where you can exert influence on the situation, and gives you the confidence to do so.
Enlightened decisiveness in the face of chaos, and the readiness to adjust when needed. It might not be full control, but it’s certainly the next best thing you can have.
Games from low to high VUCA
Chess and Cosmic Encounter are situated at the extremes of the scale. Between them are a variety of fun games that can introduce you to higher and higher VUCA contexts. Here are a few examples:
Texas Hold’em poker is a good low-medium VUCA game and a nice introduction to some uncertainty and volatility (and now you have a good excuse to play).
Pandemic is a medium VUCA game where teams of players must cooperate to save the world from highly contagious plagues. Low ambiguity and very high volatility mean that poorly managed situations can become catastrophic in a flash.
Fluxx is higher VUCA than the first two, but its simplicity and sheer randomness limits its educative side. In Fluxx (or any of its dozen or so variants) the game starts with ridiculously simple rules (Draw one card. Play one card) and no victory conditions. The game’s rules will evolve and change constantly during the course of play.
Games are safe microcosms
Changing one’s mindset from a stable and predictable environment for a volatile ambiguous one is quite the step. Games can be great tools because the stakes are either limited to the game or have limited real world impact (like gambling with a set budget that you expect to lose).
Instead of risking your career and your company’s assets on an instinct and experience that might not be appropriated to your new context, games help you make that transition and learn the new dynamic at little cost.
Don’t be fooled into thinking that games are only meant for children. The right game can be an amazing tool for learning, in addition to being both fun and social.