VUCA, BANI and Digital Transformation: Managing Radical Change

Radical change is in the air. On a global level, the world order has been disrupted by war, pestilence, the rise of authoritarianism, and the obscuration of what ‘truth’ means. Add to this the confluence of digital transformation, hybrid, and remote work, and economic disruption and we have radical change. It is the kind of change that makes reliance on history and traditional coping techniques ineffective. It brings great uncertainty.

Everything is changing and there is no telling where it will take us.

Project and program managers, organizational leaders, technologists, and all who are affected by the results of transformation must master working with people undergoing change. To be a master of change is to personally be able to stay calm and focused when faced with chaos – to manage one’s own change response. Then effective action is possible.

On an organizational level, mastery is evidenced by transition planning and execution with an emphasis on the human factor – emotional and social intelligence, resistance to change, training, ongoing support, flexibility, resilience, acceptance.

Radical Change

“The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is there’s no ground.” —  Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Radical change is a change that has a great impact. It is a revolution. It is transformation, metamorphosis. After a radical change, the caterpillar is no longer a caterpillar.

Radical change is not particularly new in world history. Just in the last few hundred years, we have had fundamental changes to the fabric of society – the printing press, the industrial revolution, capitalism, communism, the advent of electricity and electronics, radio, TV, world wars, computers, medical breakthroughs, nuclear weaponry, social media, and more.

Digital Transformation

In the realm of organizations, digital and business transformations are radical changes. Projects, and programs start and keep the change rolling to a desired new way of being.

Digital Transformation implies business transformation. It is a complex change that relies on people performing processes that use technology. Transformation shakes up the organization, its processes, and its roles and responsibilities. Jobs will go, relationships will change, new skills and a new way of thinking will be needed.

Back in 2017, for a presentation to CIOs, I wrote, The goal is to execute a strategy that provides effective, secure, and adaptable IT capabilities to enable business innovation and sustainability. Managing digital transformation means organizing, motivating, and empowering technology and business stakeholders to address long-term needs, technology trends, human needs, and uncertainty.”

I highlighted the need for cognitive readiness – “The capacity to adapt to a complex and unpredictable environment, to moderate volatility, accept uncertainty, acknowledge the complexity and minimize ambiguity to enable optimal performance.”

While digital transformation is not war in your homeland, it strikes at basic needs for security, belonging, and recognition. It presents an opportunity to work through the anxiety and stress to manage the change. It is an opportunity to cultivate self-actualization – “to become everything one is capable of becoming.”[1]

When digital transformation is seriously undertaken there is complex change on multiple levels. There is no solid ground, we are in free fall. And this brings us to the concepts of VUCA and BANI.

VUCA and BANI

VUCA has become a familiar term to many. It stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity. A more recent acronym, BANI, refers to extreme VUCA, VUCAn .

Things are unfolding moment to moment. We are faced with extreme, instable, chaotic, surprising, and disorienting situations. BANI (brittleness, anxiety, non-linearity, and incomprehensibility) is an acronym that has come into use to help find ways to handle this kind of change.

  • Brittleness refers to being in new and uncharted situation. It is brittle because rigidity sets in – wanting to hold on to the way things were, wanting control.
  • Anxiety is caused by facing the unknown and lacking control. Beyond anxiety there is existential fear – “Will I lose my job? “Will I and those I love to survive?”
  • Non-linearity is the realization that we are in a highly complex situation with multiple dimensions spiraling in multiple directions. This feeds anxiety and incomprehensibility.
  • Incomprehensibility – we can’t get the mind around the situation unless we go beyond intellect, use intuition, and accept the freedom of not knowing.

Preparation, Acceptance, and Resilience

Digital transformation need not be a BANI experience. Anxiety can be avoided and managed with the right attitude and effective planning and execution. We can make the change comprehensible through analysis, communication, and training. We can make the brittle change supple by getting better at flexible planning and openness to change.

To manage extreme circumstances, cultivate

1) The abilities to accept, relax, stop resisting, allow things to be how they are. Remember, acceptance means being realistic about what you can and cannot change. It is the platform for effective action. Acceptance enables resilience.

2) Resilience and the confidence that you can handle anything that comes. Resilience means to recover and carry on. It is best understood as going through a difficult event and coming out of the experience better than you were before. Resilience relies on acceptance.

Leading through Transformation

To succeed leaders must engender innovation, resiliency, clear thinking, and collaboration throughout the organization.

In a recent interview, Professor Linda Hill highlighted the need for interpersonal and self-awareness skills to manage digital transformation and to be effective leaders in general. Part of their transformation is to not only cultivate their own skills but to ensure that the whole organization cultivate theirs. [2]

Digital transformation, pandemic, war, and socio-economic unrest combine to create anxiety and resistance to change as people realize that they are faced with the unknown in an extremely complex environment – VUCAn, BANI, free fall, non-linear, out of control, incomprehensible, no direction home.

To succeed, everyone, leaders and all the rest need self-awareness, emotional intelligence, systems thinking, and the ability to “let go” into the unknown, accepting the loss of the comforts of the past.

Professor Hill’s studies say that organizations at the forefront of digital transformation “hired coaches to work with the C-suite to help them figure out how to be effective leaders that were creating an environment in which people want to be willing and able to innovate.” [3]

Coaching and support are needed throughout the organization. This may happen naturally as C-suite people understand the need and act upon their understanding. Otherwise, those who understand the nature of the change they are experiencing can work to convince leadership that people-focus is a significant success factor.

See my Project Times article, “Welcoming Uncertainty with Self-awareness”[4] for more on this subject.

[1] https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html Maslow, 1987, p. 64

[2] https://hbr.org/2022/03/hbs-professor-linda-hill-says-leaders-must-engage-with-emotions-as-never-before?utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter_daily&utm_campaign=dailyalert_actsubs&utm_content=signinnudge&deliveryName=DM181563

[3] Ibid

[4]  https://www.projecttimes.com/articles/welcoming-uncertainty-with-self-awareness/


George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.