If VUCA Is The New Normal, Then Improv Is The New Skill To Master

Seems like there is an article every day now talking about change. It is the only constant in today’s global business environment and the new economy brings with it digital disruption, and transformation, constantly shifting organizational models, AI, big data, sprinkle in a touch of chaos and I’m getting dizzy. Basically, there’s a lot going on and it is extremely difficult to keep up, but the companies facing the reality of where business is, where it’s going and responding to it with different and innovative approaches will beat out complacent competitors. This is not the time for stagnation.  

The business world has taken to using the military term VUCA, short for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, to describe this unpredictable work climate we find ourselves in. If you haven’t heard of it, I’ll bet you suffer from it.  We needed a label for all the chaos and uncertainty because it’s scary and the concept VUCA gives us some context to work within so we can begin to think about a strategy.

The good news is, you can learn to thrive in a VUCA environment and companies can equip their employees to handle the new challenges and uncertainty.  By adapting, interacting and even playing with the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous circumstances we are up against, we can learn to thrive.  Organizations can support a “how to thrive in a VUCA state” mindset and even embed it into their culture.

Practicing how to respond to uncertainty and adapting to change in the moment are not skills most corporate environments have created a space for. Not because they don’t get it or recognize the value, the truth is, there aren’t a lot of programs or methodologies that allow people to simulate scenarios where VUCA conditions exist and allow people to practice resilience and adaptability and strengthening these muscles over time.

Improvisation, the art of working without a script, adapting in the moment using only what you have and building something out of nothing is a novel way to tap into and to practice skills like adaptability and resilience, which are really at the core of countering the VUCA pillars. When I started taking improv classes almost two decades ago, I had no idea that over time I would evolve into a “Ninja of the Unknown”. It was just like learning to play a sport with rules you adhere to in order for it to work. In order for it (improv) to work, I had to learn the rules and practice them in given scenarios, and handling the unknown was just one of the rules of improv I had to master. Over time, I watched my practice and toning of the “handling the unknown” muscle help me rise above and apart from all my peers in my sales career. I had a secret weapon.

Allow me to share with you how Improvisation can work to counter the four pillars within the VUCA model and how you can make it your secret weapon.


1-Volatility-the quality of being subject to frequent, rapid and significant change

This sounds a little like torture, but let’s be honest, business environments can also feel like torture sometimes. We know that change is constant and fast and difficult. What can we do to condition ourselves to handle volatile conditions better?

Improvisation subjects you to frequent, rapid and significant change in real time in a low stakes environment where everyone is after the same objective and most likely having fun.

2-Uncertainty is a component of any situation, in which events and outcomes are unpredictable. 

Who enjoys not knowing what is going to happen next? Maybe in life, this can be a sweet release, but in business not so much. It really is the “what you don’t know” in any situation that can paralyze us.

Improvisation conditions you to move forward with only what you have in that moment and not letting the fear of the unknown keep you from progress. Practicing the skill of resilience and bouncing back from any unforeseen outcomes.

3-Complexity involves a multiplicity of issues and factors, some of which may be intricately interconnected. (Some models also include chaotic, making the acronym VUCCA.

Ever felt like if one more thing hits you out of nowhere, you will lose it? There are so many things coming at you at once in business, a lot of moving parts you cannot control and complex issues to deal with. The ability to navigate complexities and interact with chaos might come in handy.

Improvisation by nature invites chaos and begs you to weave a bunch of unrelated pieces together with ease and accept all offers thrown at you and treat them as gifts even if you don’t always understand where they fit. Improv equips you with the ability to take everything thrown at you or offered to you in the moment and not worry about the limitations but instead to think about the possibilities.

4-Ambiguity is manifested in a lack of clarity and the difficulty of understanding exactly what the situation is.

Business loves its structure and processes and planning. What happens when plans change? We need to rise to the challenge of ambiguity and learn to respond with resilience and adaptability.

Improvisation teaches people that “they are enough”. They have everything they need to work off-script and create what is needed in the moment. Sometimes you fail, sometimes you knock everyone’s socks off. You are okay though because the risk is worth it and you have two choices.  Do something or do nothing. When there is no plan, you can learn to lean in and get out of your own way by improvising.

This does mean that you now must embark on your own improv journey, and I can assure you, the benefits and rewards far outweigh any initial fear or resistance. We can keep talking about all the change and even borrow a military acronym to give it a label, but at some point, you must decide how you choose to handle it. Improvisation is an offer. The choice is yours.

Kristy West is a Certified Applied Improv Practitioner, Speaker, and Founder of BraveSpace. She has been performing, studying and teaching improv for almost two decades. Along with her improv experience, Kristy spent over 15 years in B2B Sales and Corporate Training.