Winning in a VUCA World with a Culture of Agile Collaboration

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Home > Articles > Winning in a VUCA World with a Culture of Agile Collaboration

 Winning in a VUCA World with a Culture of Agile Collaboration

by Jean-François Cousin | Today's Manager
June 1, 2016

Leaders can create the culture of agile collaboration needed for success in challenging business environments by attaining four leadership levels.

Goldman Sachs mentions in their 2016 Outlook that there are countless factors that increase volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) in businesses. China’s bumpy growth deceleration, its large debt overhang and overcapacity in many industries, the normalisation of monetary policies in the United States (US), tepid economies in Europe, the oil price roller-coaster, and quicker evolutions in customer spending patterns are some examples.

Such an environment compels companies to relentlessly evolve their value propositions more relevantly and quickly than their competitors. Pulling out the best from their resources is not enough. Breakthrough collective thinking across divisions as well as swift decision-making processes and execution are necessary. Therefore enterprises must radically enhance collaboration and agility.

How can leaders grow to overcome such challenges? And what must they accomplish to create a culture of agile collaboration? Here are four steps along four leadership levels that will go a long way:

Drop the Masks (Self Leadership)
Successful leaders in a VUCA world cannot make ‘perfect decisions’ because there aren’t any… yet they must gain and retain their followers’ trust. Hence leaders must show up as authentic and humble too, as Mr Jim Collins noted in his book From Good to Great. Dropping the masks of perfection or superiority makes leaders vulnerable. Leaders can afford such discomfort only if they have gained robust self-confidence.

The self-development journey that nurtures it starts with gaining comprehensive self-awareness and then mustering the courage to accept one’s strengths, weaknesses, and character flaws. Self-acceptance reinforces the determination to grow and then bring out one’s best. From there, leaders’ genuine self-confidence soars and makes them far more inspiring role-models than directive, paternalistic authoritarians.

Lift Others Up (Relational Leadership)
The second step for leaders is to enhance followers’ motivation and capabilities, ensuring they bring out their best individually and go further and faster together as a team. People learn fastest by doing and from mistakes. Therefore leaders must empower widely, cascading authority down to the lowest levels reasonable, and removing excessive fears of failure. Such an approach emboldens employees to take initiatives, and generates leaders at all levels. Whilst people should always feel leaders care for and support them, leaders must not overprotect them. Leaders must also recognise when their subordinates know better, and then offer them the space to contribute at their best, remembering that leadership is like a dance—sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow.

Get the Acts Together (Team Leadership)
Once leaders and managers across the organisation are authentic and humble, and all employees feel supported to grow their capabilities (hence gaining self-esteem), the next step is to ensure teamwork produces far better outcomes than the addition of individual contributions. Leaders must first stop any remaining toxic behaviour from team members. Then they should invite teams to co-create the ‘rules of their game’, defining how they want to ‘play together’ to bring out their best collective thinking and ensure full accountability for the execution of their decisions. Getting team members’ acts together triggers solid collaborative engagement.

Unleash Collaboration and Agility (Organisational Leadership)
The last step towards winning in a VUCA world requires bringing down walls between divisions. Leaders and managers must instill a bias for diversity and coach employees as they embrace the challenges of ‘playing well teamwork with others’ outside of their own turf for the greater good of the organisation.


Beyond this, leadership teams should define the beliefs and behaviours that must be embedded across their enterprise to create a culture of agile collaboration. Here are some real examples:

Beliefs ​Behaviours
​Authenticity and trust inspire reciprocity ​We are authentic and we choose to trust others upfront
​It is more productive to look for the best in others than to obsess about their flaws ​We look for the best in others
​Everyone has worthwhile experience and ideas to contribute ​We listen for value
​Blame promotes the fear of mistakes and discourages initiatives; tolerating excuses decreases accountability ​We choose a ‘no-blame’ and ‘no-excuse’ approach to everything we do
​A rising tide lifts all the boats ​We help everyone play at their best
​Collaboration and agility are critical to our success ​We build bridges by improving
daily cooperation and agility in teamwork

In addition, leaders must ruthlessly kick out politics, trim processes to enhance decision-making speed, and continuously raise the bar for performance.

Those four steps reward employees for stepping out of their comfort zone, and embed agile collaboration to support sustainable high performance. Given the pressing challenges of our VUCA world, we may take a leaf from a Chinese proverb which says: “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago… The next best time is now”.



​Mr Jean-François Cousin is a global leadership expert, speaker, and executive coach, under the brand ‘Greatness Leadership Coaching’. In his book Game Changers at the Circus: How Leaders Can Unleash Greatness in Their Organizations, he shares practical and proven steps for leaders to enhance agile collaboration in a VUCA world.


Copyright © 2016 Singapore Institute of Management

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Today's Manager Issue 2, 2016

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