VUCA: the New Normal for Talent Management and Workforce Planning

If you are among the many strategic leaders frustrated with your inability to anticipate and handle the volatility and the speed of change in the talent management environment, you should take a few minutes to understand VUCA. VUCA best describes the volatile and chaotic business, economic, and physical environment that we all now face. Unless you have had your head in the sand, you must have noticed the chaotic business and economic conditions under which we currently operate. In fact, the last decade was so chaotic that in its cover story, Time magazine labeled it “the decade from hell.”

Many in talent management have been hoping that this chaos is a short-term phenomenon, but it is a permanent condition that we must all learn how to manage under.

Because they were designed for more predictable times, almost all current HR, talent management, and workforce planning processes fail to perform in this chaotic environment. In a VUCA environment, there are more changes, a faster rate of change, and the size of the changes are so impactful that they must be labeled as “disruptive.” So the question for talent leadership becomes, “how do you effectively hire, develop, place, and retain individuals and leaders in the volatile environment where literally everything changes in months rather than years?”

V.U.C.A. (pronounced voo – ka) is an acronym for an environment that is dominated by:

Volatility — where things change fast but not in a predictable trend or repeatable pattern.

Uncertainty — where major “disruptive” changes occur frequently. In this environment, the past is not an accurate predictor of the future, and identifying and preparing for “what will come next” is extremely difficult.

Complexity — where there are numerous difficult-to-understand causes and mitigating factors involved in a problem.

Ambiguity — where the causes and the “who, what, where, when, how, and why” behind the things that are happening are unclear and hard to ascertain.

Talent Management Has Been Lagging in VUCA Preparation

The concept of operating in a chaotic environment is not new. Tom Peters has been talking about managing under chaos for years, and “decision-making under uncertainty” is a well-established academic field. What is new is that most economic, business, and political leaders have realized that the VUCA environment is a permanent condition.

Business executives have been preparing for the VUCA environment for years. Although most of the initial work was done by the military and in counterterrorism, VUCA planning has been part of business processes like supply chain and risk management for years. A few firms like GE, Unilever, and McDonald’s have even begun changing their leadership development model to fit the VUCA environment. But unfortunately, no one in recruiting, retention, skill development, compensation, performance management, onboarding, etc. has paid more than lip surface attention to this strategic problem. As a result, the time has come to face the fact that you can’t be strategic in talent management, HR, or recruiting unless you can manage and thrive in a VUCA environment.

Why Talent Managers and Workforce Planners Must Prepare for VUCA

Under the established 20th-century talent management model, the future was relatively predictable. As a result, firms hired, trained employees, and developed leaders in order to prepare for the “predictable” upcoming business environment. Most firms prepared their employees for the single-most likely future scenario (i.e. scenario A), which was usually a 5%-10% extrapolation from the current situation.

The more advanced firms prepared for not just the single-most-likely scenario but also for one or two alternative predictable scenarios (i.e. scenario A and B, C). But unfortunately, in a world of continuous disruption and VUCA, using this traditional model usually means that you end up hiring, training, and developing for business and talent management scenarios that will literally never occur. Planning, forecasting, and training simply cannot work if the environment that you are preparing for never appears!

A Quick Example to Illustrate Complexity and Volatility

For example, recruiting routinely plans for three distinct scenarios: no hiring, moderate hiring, and large-scale hiring. However, in a VUCA environment, talent acquisition must plan for each of those scenarios, but in addition, it must also plan for periods where the firm will do rapid hiring in some business units and regions, while simultaneously having a hiring freeze or even layoffs in other business units.

What Is Needed Is an Agile Talent Management Model

The 21st-century VUCA model that I am advocating requires talent management to have plans for handling numerous “disruptive events” that traditional narrow workforce planning simply can’t handle. Some of those disruptive events might include generational shifts that occur every six years, social media changing the way we communicate, and simultaneous talent surpluses and shortages.

One possible conclusion for talent management leaders could be that you should stop any planning process that never accurately forecasts the future. But that would be a major mistake. Instead, in a VUCA environment, talent management needs to develop an “agile model” that prepares for a wider range of options (i.e. scenario A-Z) but more importantly, it must also develop Talent Management processes/systems that can actually shift and handle any unpredicted upcoming event “just-in-time.” It might seem counterintuitive at first, but the military has proven that you make people more agile and successfully prepare them for handling unpredicted events that literally no one thought of in advance.

Things That Talent Management Must Start Doing to Meet the VUCA Environment

Talent management leaders must prepare for disruptive problems and opportunities that cannot be predicted. Some of the action steps that you should take to prepare for complete surprises and the VUCA environment include:

  • Agile employees — Develop as a primary goal a focus on the hiring, training, and retaining of employees and managers who are agile, who thrive in a VUCA environment, and those who have the capability of acting effectively in unforeseen and unpredicted situations.
  • Agile processes — Require agility, flexibility, and a rapid change capability as an essential component in all current and new talent management processes and programs.
  • Self-obsolescence of processes — Require all talent management programs and processes to include a component that continually “self-obsoletes” its own current practices and replaces them with updated ones.
  • Training to solve unanticipated problems — training and development must create the capability to prepare employees and managers to identify and effectively handle previously unknown problems. A high volume of scenario training and simulations can make an employee more comfortable and confident when they encounter a completely new situation. With repetition, employees can eventually develop skills and their own processes for handling “brand-new” volatile and complex situations that are full of uncertainty and ambiguity.
  • Focus on innovation — Prioritize talent management so that it focuses on innovators, game-changers, and pioneers who are essential for success in a VUCA environment.
  • Rapid learning — Develop systems to increase the speed of individual and organizational learning.
  • More internal movement — Develop process to proactively speed up the movement of employees internally to where they can have a greater impact.
  • Contingent labor — Use contingent labor as a significant percentage of the workforce, in order to increase your capability to meet sudden upturns, downturns, and new skill needs.
  • Rapid increase in talent — Develop the capability for rapid hiring for sudden needs through poaching, with pre-identifying talent pools and by building professional communities.
  • Rapid release of talent — Develop the capability for rapidly releasing surplus and inappropriately skilled workers.
  • Fluid job descriptions — Develop continually evolving job descriptions and hiring standards that reflect the continually changing work.
  • Outsourcing for flexibility — Use outsourcing to fill sudden needs and overflow work.
  • Competitive advantage — Develop talent management processes and programs that provide a continual competitive advantage over other talent competitors.

Things That Talent Management Must Stop Doing to Meet the VUCA Environment

Leaders must dramatically modify or stop doing the following things to prepare for a VUCA environment.

  • Stop seeking permanent solutions in talent management and HR
  • Stop relying on the past and trends as an accurate predictor of the future
  • Stop benchmarking best practices and solutions to most current problems
  • Stop assuming that long-term employee retention is possible or even desirable
  • Stop assuming that “one-size-fits-all” is a good approach to managing employees
  • Eliminate “fit” as a desirable criterion in hiring and retention
  • Stop assuming that the corporate culture and even corporate values should automatically remain fixed

You Must Also Prepare for Disruptive Changes That Can Be Predicted

Although these listed problems will likely appear unexpectedly, these dramatic changes in talent management can be anticipated, so they must be planned for.

  • A continually changing set of required employee skills and job duties and a huge gap between the needed and the available skill sets
  • A completely new set of leadership skills that will focus on agility, flexibility, and in developing a “just-in-time” solutions capability within the team
  • Dramatic fluctuations in employee turnover
  • Continually changing candidate expectations
  • Dramatic shifts in the volume and quality of applications
  • Frequent changes in offer acceptance rates
  • Continuous development of new communications and learning tools
  • Generational changes that occurs every 6 years instead of 20

Final Thoughts

The new talent management model that I am recommending is based on the assumption that for the foreseeable future, most problems and opportunities will simply not be predictable. The model however does take advantage of the fact that the skill and capability of handling completely new unforeseen situations can be developed. My challenge and question to talent management leaders is “What are you doing to ensure that every talent management process and employee can produce optimal results in a VUCA environment? The time is come to put together a planning session devoted to making the shift toward the new agile talent management model.

About the Author

DJS campus headshot

Dr. John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high-business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions. He’s a prolific author with over 900 articles and 10 books covering all areas of talent management. He has written over a dozen white papers, conducted over 50 webinars, dozens of workshops, and he has been featured in over 35 videos. He is an engaging corporate speaker who has excited audiences at over 300 corporations/ organizations in 30 countries on all six continents. His ideas have appeared in every major business source including the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, BusinessWeek, Fast Company, CFO, Inc., NY Times, SmartMoney, USA Today, HBR, and the Financial Times. In addition, he writes for the WSJ Experts column. He has been interviewed on CNN and the CBS and ABC nightly news, NPR, as well many local TV and radio outlets. Fast Company called him the "Michael Jordan of Hiring," called him “the father of HR metrics,” and SHRM called him “One of the industry's most respected strategists." He was selected among HR’s “Top 10 Leading Thinkers” and he was ranked No. 8 among the top 25 online influencers in talent management. He served as the Chief Talent Officer of Agilent Technologies, the HP spinoff with 43,000 employees, and he was the CEO of the Business Development Center, a minority business consulting firm in Bakersfield, California. He is currently a Professor of Management at San Francisco State (1982 – present). His articles can be found all over the Internet and on his popular website and on www.ERE.Net. He lives in Pacifica, California.

  • Mary Spilman

    Smart companies are ones that are fluid and they are adopting this kind of platform. This is also expressed in the book The Talent Masters. What old is out, be fluid going forward, talanted, flexible people will be just fine.

    Interesting John, I agree.

    Mary Spilman

  • Janet Macaskill

    I think that the VUCA concept is really useful and it will help people to stop thinking about trying to get to some kind of stable state in an organisation or career, but to see VUCA as the “new normal”
    What I would like to hear is your rationale for the comment about the need to eliminate “fit” as a criterion as it is something I had always thought was essential, so I need to get my head around this not being the case

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  • Keith Halperin

    Thanks, Dr. Sullivan.
    VUCA? We down-in-the-trenches recruiters live here!
    You mentionedthe term “agile”. Well, here again is the Manifesto for Agile Recruiting:

    Manifesto for Agile Recruiting
    (This was “sampled” from the Agile SW Development Manifesto. -kh)

    We are uncovering better ways of hiring people by doing it and helping others do it.
    Through this work we have come to value:
    • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
    • Quick, quality hires over comprehensive documentation
    • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
    • Responding to change over following a plan
    That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

    Principles behind the Agile Recruiting Manifesto

    We follow these principles:
    • Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of quality hires.
    • Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
    • Deliver quality hires frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
    • Internal customers and recruiters must work together daily throughout the project.
    • Build projects around motivated individuals.
    • Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
    • The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a recruiting team is face-to-face conversation.
    • A quality hire which is on-time and within budget is the primary measure of progress.
    • Agile processes promote sustainable employee development.
    • The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
    • Continuous attention to professional excellence and first-class service enhances agility.
    • Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work NOT done–is essential.
    • The best requirements, processes, and hires emerge from self-organizing teams.
    • At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.


    I challenge staffing organizations to adopt, implement, and maintain these policies and principles. Don’t know how? I’ll be happy to show you.


    Keith Halperin

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  • michael cardy

    Great response to a certainty principle: What you know has changed, what you don’t know is changing as well.
    Recommend you look at World Economic Forum’s Global Risks 2012 – a brilliant ten year trend projection that supports your suppositions.

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