What does VUCA mean?

You might have heard the term VUCA quite a lot recently – but what exactly does it mean for you and your business?

Nigel Povah, chairman, chief executive and founder of a&dc, can help us get under the skin of this term – which stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity.


In the context of a VUCA world, this word means the world is changing at a very high and rapid rate.

According to Mr Povah, this has been known for many years and the idea that the world is changing rapidly is not new. However, he believes the world has not recognised the importance of this significantly.

Mr Povah put forward one graphic illustration of just how quickly the world is changing, presenting the scenario of a person undertaking a three-year university course.

“By the time they are graduating, many of the things they were taught in their first year won’t be true or relevant,” he said.

“This is quite scary. Some of that stuff has been superseded because of the pace of change. No longer is it long periods of time before these changes kick in. They’re happening far, far quicker than ever before.”

If you think about this in terms of the operating environment for businesses, then it is clear that they can’t afford to rest on their laurels. It’s equally clear that for these firms to thrive, they need to be led by people capable of both identifying and responding effectively to change.

“But when you look at the other three words in the VUCA definition, they add to the confusion, you could say,” Mr Povah stated.


The world is full of uncertainty, which means there is a lack of clarity about both the present and the future.

As a result, business leaders can’t always understand why something has happened while predicting with any certainty what is yet to come can be even more difficult.

“This uncertainty makes the world a very difficult place to operate in effectively,” Mr Povah commented.

The challenge for anyone who is heading up a business, therefore, is to both recognise this state of affairs and respond to it effectively.


If a problem arises, business leaders don’t always find it easy to go back to why it occurred and identify its root cause.

However, this causes a big problem for their firms. After all, if they don’t understand what gave rise to a particular problem, then it becomes even more challenging to be able to predict what’s going to happen in the future.

Mr Povah believes that being able to recognise the fact that numerous and complex circumstances contribute to various situations is an essential attribute for a leader.

“Many of the problems that occur in the world now can be explained by saying it wasn’t one event that caused this problem to occur,” he remarked.

“It was three or four different events that when combined together gave rise to this problem.”


The final word of the VUCA acronym means that the likely outcomes of various scenarios and situations are not entirely clear.

So even if something does happen, it’s hard to ascertain what exactly the consequences of that event might be and what it really means.

“All of this bundled together just makes the world a very chaotic and confusing place,” Mr Povah said.

And this is the environment in which business leaders need to be equipped to deal with every day of their working lives.

The Apprentice – The Final (Episode 12)

This year’s series of The Apprentice has treated us to a feast of memorable moments. From Steven’s sales pitch containing the words “It’s not just a potato, it’s an experience”, to James’ bumbling optimism in statements such as “The world is as big as our oyster”. From Felipe’s insistence on describing Felipe’s actions in the most emphatic way Felipe knows how, to Daniel’s questionable Values hidden behind thinly-veiled stubbornness (“I would probably say my CV is under-exaggerated” – doesn’t that just mean you could have embellished it even more than you already had?). Seemingly in the blink of an eye, or in the case of Week 4 the brisk triple-wag of Lord Sugar’s firing digit, twenty candidates became two. Now we come to the summit (pun intended) of all Bianca and Mark’s efforts.

Going forward from the Interview stage, there appeared to be pros and cons to each business plan, making it difficult to predict into which plan Lord Sugar would be most likely to invest his £250,000. Consequently, and as we mentioned in the most recent a&dc Blog entry, the candidate who demonstrates the most Learning, Intellect, Values, Emotions and Drive in this final task will persuade Lord Sugar that she / he has the essential leadership qualities to progress her / his proposal into a profitable and successful business. So, how did the finalists fare in their last chance to impress Lord Sugar?

The conclusive test of The Apprentice typically hinges on the finalists’ abilities to manage a team of previously eliminated candidates. This year was no exception, the project being to launch their businesses to an audience of experts, having designed their brand and created a promotional video. Both finalists faced the pressures of managing multiple tasks, and both dealt with them in very different ways. Let’s take a look at how these approaches to the challenges influenced the ultimate outcome of the series.

True Skin

Bianca’s presentation was developed based on the concept of a luxury brand priced at the higher end of the market, given that her variety of skin-toned tights provided a USP that addressed something of a gap in the industry. As a result, her initial price for the product was £35; albeit this may have shown a naïve understanding of the market. Having met personally with the MD of Wolford, a veritable expert in the hosiery industry, and having received feedback from her team about the pricing strategy, Bianca did reduce this figure to £24. This however was still not as low as her peers were suggesting, and it was not enough to satisfy the experts at the event, who saw a mismatch between the branding of the product and the investment that consumers would have to make.

Further to this point, Bianca struggled to manage her team in a tactful, diplomatic and motivating way. Stating “I don’t want lots of opinions or voices” when her team travelled all the way back to London with the product and offered to help, Bianca demonstrated her focus was “delivering on my own goals” rather than act as a collective. This left the team reeling on a sour note, and was represented in the Boardroom through their hesitation to immediately praise Bianca to Lord Sugar. Having said this, Bianca consistently demonstrated a composed, measured approach that overcame the issues with Emotions that impacted her performance in the previous week. In many ways, however, she was too controlled and headstrong. She continued to push for the luxury market and only changed her approach at the last minute in the Boardroom when she finally realised that her overdeveloped Drive was hampering her chances of becoming The Apprentice.

Climb Online

 Mark’s business, delving into a relatively saturated market by providing a search engine optimisation digital marketing service, emphasised a highly personalised approach to delivering this facility. To some extent, this USP reflects a global megatrend influencing the world of work called ‘glocalisation’, or the adaptation of a product or service to each locality in which it is sold. Mark tapped into this idea with his business plan, offering a ready-to-use service that provides extensive consultation to get any business to exactly where they need to be based on their individual circumstances. Unsurprisingly, his main focus was on developing the brand and marketing into a position that accurately reflected this. Indeed, his rock-climbing promotional video and business name ‘Climb Online’ did exactly that.

While filming his advert, Mark worked hard to sell his corporate message in front of the camera, but struggled to deliver it at times. Echoes of Week 10 and his fear of “fluffing a pitch” showed signs of a man who was stressed with the pressure of “spinning plates” and juggling all responsibilities, but this is simply a reflection of the Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA) challenges that we live with today in the world of work.

However, Mark managed his team effectively in order to drive through the task. He gave plenty of praise to each individual, as well as proactively listening and taking on board their feedback to mould his proposition towards providing absolute customer satisfaction (“In the first two months customers get two visits, and they get a face-to-face visit with a Consultant once a month every month”). Mark was able to lead from within, balancing directive and collaborative styles when necessary. As a result, his team felt valued and they quickly sang his praises in the Boardroom.

This also demonstrated effective Learning, one of the most vital elements of a successful leader and manager. Mark’s Drive for results in this task has been unquestionable (eg “I will give you 100% of my focus”, “He would work his finger to the bone”), and his professional understanding of his business plan enabled Mark to control his Emotions and show his Intellect when it mattered most, ie when presenting in front of the industry experts and coolly answering their questions.

You’re Hired!

Between two businesses that both contained clear risks and opportunities, Lord Sugar’s decision was ultimately guided by the personal characteristics described above, the elements that a&dc’s LIVEDmodel of complete leadership tell us produce greater business performance. In this way, Mark emerged victorious, secured the £250,000 investment, and won The Apprentice 2014 because he was a stronger LIVED leader.

Make it your New Year’s resolution to ensure you have LIVED leaders driving performance in your organisation. From all of us at a&dc, have a very Merry Christmas and we’ll see you in 2015!

Author: Jordon Jones

The Apprentice – Interviews (Episode 11)

The interviews are always fascinating as we get the stark contrast between how the candidates have behaved over the previous 10 weeks and how they come across 1-1 in a series of challenging interviews which aim to probe their CVs and dissect their business plans. It always amazes me how many candidates on the Apprentice in previous years have naively misrepresented facts on their CVs in such a blatant manner that it doesn’t take a detective to see the flaw, yet they still seem surprised when this is pointed out. This trend continued last night when Mark was accused by Ricky Martin (a former Apprentice winner) of being deceitful when he exaggerated the period of time he had operated as a Sales Manager. Does this raise a hint of doubt about Mark’s Values and in particular his integrity? Similarly Daniel exaggerated his sales prowess claiming he was one of the top sales people at one of his previous employers, when it became evident that he hadn’t won the award he claimed he had!

However, the most damning outcome of all was when despite having 24 hours to do further work on  their Business Plans, Solomon was challenged by Claude Littner for producing a flimsy, eight page business plan, with several of the pages just providing pictures. In fact Claude was so angry that he told Solomon ‘Your Business Plan is a bloody disgrace, you can leave, you’re taking the piss!’ Solomon showed an amazing level of naivety, claiming that he had a good idea in his head (“I’ve got the nitty gritty stuff in my mind”) but worst of all expecting Lord Sugar to accept this as a sound basis upon which to invest and it was no surprise that he was the first to be fired. Although Solomon had been praised for his honesty in his CV, which indicated that his Values were not a cause for concern, his approach with his Business Plan showed very poor judgement and a questionable level of Intellect, so he had to go.

Roisin fared quite well in the interviews, receiving recognition for her accounting qualification and responding well when challenged as to whether these skills were sufficient for her to be able to deliver her business plan. However, she was caught out by Mike Soutar when she claimed that her proposed food product was unique, only for Mike to produce an existing product containing many of the same ingredients. Fortunately, Roisin responded with “I know about that” and she managed to defend herself. However, this problem returned in the Boardroom when Roisin’s first year sales projections were challenged, given that her product wasn’t entirely unique as she had originally claimed. Worse still, she had indicated expenditure in excess of £750k in year one and when she suggested that a bank loan would be required in addition to Lord Sugar’s investment, he saw red and she was the second candidate to be fired. Roisin was another one who’s Intellect let her down, as she had failed to be realistic when evaluating the market potential for her product and the difficulties she would face in launching it into a competitive retail environment.

Daniel managed to get through the interviews without too many scares despite Claude at one point saying to him “Don’t talk rubbish”, before going on to fondly describe him as “a rough diamond” and calling his business plan “impressive”. Daniel left everyone in no doubt about his Drive, saying “… all you need is determination and passion – I’m a fighter.” A view echoed by Mike to Lord Sugar “He’ll work his fingers to the bone.” However, Claude highlighted one of his weaknesses when he asked “Are you good with numbers?”, to which  Daniel honestly replied “That’s something to take away with me.”  Unfortunately for Daniel, Lord Sugar doubted his business plan, which he described as ‘party planning on line’, but he feared it wasn’t going to happen. However, Lord Sugar did praise Daniel for having an open mind to re-structuring his Business Plan and he also admired his desire and passion (Drive). He concluded by saying: “…your “Business Plan is all over the place, but you’re doing it and you want to grow it, it would be a rocky ride”, but on further reflection he decided it was too great a risk and he was fired, but he added “…you’re better than when you started. I hope you’ve learned something!” Indeed to Daniel’s credit it had been quite obvious that Learning was one of his stronger qualities, as he had managed to progress throughout the process, despite being a frequent ‘guest’ in the Boardroom!

So what about the two finalists?

Bianca started the interviews with the same level of calm confidence that she had displayed throughout much of the process, however Mike confronted this by saying “It feels like your hiding behind a mask” to which she responded by saying “…it feels like I’m under attack.”  Claude added to the pressure by questioning what her business plan was offering and Ricky upset her by accusing her of charging for standard added-value services. At this point Bianca became tearful and she was clearly struggling to manage her Emotions. However, in the Boardroom she managed to hold her own and sold herself to Lord Sugar by saying “… I think we can combine your manufacturing expertise and my passion” and he was clearly impressed, when he said “… you’re starting from scratch, it is a giant leap but an interesting proposal.”

Mark has frequently been acknowledged as the best salesperson on this year’s Apprentice and so it was during the interviews, even when Ricky asked Mark to do an impromptu sales pitch.  Ricky exposed a possible area of weakness when he asked him about his qualifications. However, when challenged on his business plan, Mark confidently replied with “I’m comfortable with my business plan”, to which he got the reply: “Good answer.”  There was general enthusiasm for Mark’s business plan which is about improving Search Engine Optimisation and given his background in this field he is probably seen as a safe bet. Mike also pointed out that Mark understands how he would manage the business. The only doubts about Mark relate to his proposal being targeted at a crowded market but his confidence shone through when he said: “I think my business plan will blow the others away”. Karen also raised a concern about his Emotions when she referred to him cracking under the strain of presenting on the previous task.

So who do we think is best placed to become this year’s Apprentice?

a&dc believes its LIVED™ leadership model is a perfect basis for evaluating leaders and potential leaders so if we compare the final two candidates against the 5 dimensions we should get an idea of who has the best chance of succeeding. Both have displayed strong Drive, so there is little between them here, although Mark is clearly the more outwardly confident, bordering on brash. Intellect is hard to judge without seeing their CVs and although Bianca may be ahead on this, given Mark’s response to the qualifications question, his business plan is on firmer ground, so he is less likely to be caught out on this dimension, so little to choose between them again.  Emotions has already been commented upon and both have some weakness in this area, so it will depend on who can best keep their emotions under control on the final task. There was a hint of a concern raised earlier about Mark’s Values so Bianca may have the edge here. However, the most likely decider will be Learning, as the final task will probably be won by the candidate who can take up the challenge by using what they have learned from the process so far.  It’s all to play for!

Author: Nigel Povah

The Apprentice – 10 years of discount buying (Episode 9)

Picking over the bones

This week I find myself enraged by The Apprentice.  Never before, over countless series, has the outcome of an episode seemed so unfair.

Here is the scenario, one candidate shows initiative, creativity and intelligence, finding a before un-thought-of solution to a problem.  The second runs around like a headless chicken, trying to find a headless Kosher chicken, shows poor leadership and strategy, and misses the deadline.  Which one goes?  Yep, that’s right, the first one.

This week found teams Tenacity and Summit undertaking the perennial buying task, the aim of it being to test a candidates planning, logistical and negotiating skills.  Given this task appears every year, what better opportunity is there over the series for candidates to actually think about their strategy in advance.  They could learn from the mistakes of previous series, and plan their approach accordingly.  And this year even more so, given that the items on the list were ones that have appeared in previous series.  You would think anyway – but it didn’t really go that way.

Team leaders this week were Sanjay and Daniel.  Daniel bulldozed his way into the role, overriding Katie’s and Mark’s suggestions that they were the ideal people for this task.

Sanjay’s strategy was to sit tight, phone around to source the items, and then get on the road.  A good idea perhaps, but 2 ½ hours later they were getting nowhere, as Roisin ignored Bianca’s repeated suggestions that diamonds would best be found in Hatton Garden.  Once on the road, things didn’t get much better, with a complete lack of strategy, highlighted particularly by the random driving past a “shop” (what was it?) with a skeleton in the window.  The phrase ‘busy fools’ sprung to mind.  There was one small glimmer of hope in the group, when Bianca used the fact that Summit were behind Tenacity at a reclamation yard to get a better discount than they did.  And she did it again in the hunt for the skeleton; whilst Solomon messed around with “Stanley’s” detachable jaw, Bianca effectively negotiated down on the price.

Daniel’s team, Tenacity, performed well throughout the task.  They got every item (which, as Lord Sugar pointed out, had not been done before).  Daniel showed Drive throughout the day, motivating his team (albeit appearing slightly insincere at times) and getting them all back to the Boardroom with minutes to spare.  And it all seems so promising, until Lord Sugar presented the skeleton and things fell apart.  Watching the programme, it appeared that Tenacity were going to be rewarded for, well, their tenacity, and for Filipe’s creativity (and minor pedantry) buying a paper skeleton to meet the description of what was required.  The decision to disallow it seemed petty, a perception which was compounded by Lord Sugar also highlighting that the rope they had obtained was 0.7 metres too long.  This quibbling, which ultimately resulted in Tenacity losing, left me wondering what on earth this episode told us about business.  Lord Sugar’s criticism that Filipe was trying to be “too clever” seemed an odd message about what AMS1 values in potential business partners.

What then could we glean about leadership from this episode?  One thing struck me – that Daniel had survived four rounds of being in the final three.  And what got him through?  As Filipe said, in this episode he “became a man, and showed us he learned something”.  For the vast majority of the task it appeared that he had learned, he seemed to be dealing well with his team, there was no arguing, and he held the task together.  The second thing was Drive; he pushed himself forward as leader and managed the team to get hold of every single item at a good price.  But things changed once it was clear the team had lost.  Daniel lost control of his emotions, which manifested itself in anger, and slightly oddly, in bizarrely animated ears.  It was also at this point that his values (or the lack thereof) came in to play, where decisions he had supported, namely Filipe’s idea about the skeleton, he then backed away from.  Despite congratulating Filipe several times for his ingenuity during the task, Daniel then “revealed” (or post hoc rationalised) that he had been feeling anxious about the skeleton all day.  Therefore, whilst both Drive and Learning (two key elements of a&dc’s LIVED Leadership Model) were in evidence, there are significant concerns over Daniel’s ability to control his Emotions and whether he actually has any Values.

Sanjay’s showed a lack of Learning (things were just not going well from the beginning, and he didn’t change his plan), Intellect (in the form of strategy), control of his Emotions and a lack of Drive.  His inability to manage his emotions came down more to a lack of focus and panic when things weren’t going to plan, and to excessive sweating and nervous laughing in the boardroom.  His lack of Drive was evidenced particularly when it was clear the team weren’t going to get back to the Boardroom in line with the deadline – you could see the defeat in his eyes.

What other lessons could be learned from this episode?  Well, maybe Lord Sugar could learn something about how to specify his requirements clearly.  Perhaps Filipe could help him with that?

Author: Philippa Riley