A single straight road cuts through twisted streets with question mark signs, a path forged by VUCA leadership
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Groupthink

Groupthink refers to group pressure and the perception of consensus which together lead to ill-formed decisions—or even unnecessary risks. Learn to identify the warning signs of groupthink and apply countermeasures in this online course.

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To plan strategy on any level, you need to understand your company's external environment. In fact, your level of understanding can impact hiring, budgeting, marketing, or nearly any other part of the business world. Want to learn how to do all that? This course from GLOBIS Unlimited is the perfect first step!

Are you comfortable thinking about uncertainty?

This May, I attended a Global Advisory Council meeting at the Wilson Center, the only bipartisan think tank in Washington DC, created and funded by the US Congress. At the dinner session, I thought I’d try seeing how this group of experts would react to a couple of scenarios that would surely upturn the world order as we know it:

What if the UK really does opt to leave the EU? And what if Donald Trump is elected president of the United States? What sort of world order would we be looking at?

These are exactly the sort of questions we explore at the annual G1 Global Conference. But when I broached these topics at the Wilson Center, no one replied. The subject was swiftly changed by a room of people meant to have the VUCA leadership skills to guide us on the rough roads ahead.

After dinner, another attendee came over to explain why no one had responded: No one wanted to even think about such unlikely (and unwelcome) outcomes. But as every leader knows, the unthinkable happens every day. Whether you’re running a country or a small business, we must be ready to respond.

As if the universe wanted to drive the point home, both of my seemingly unlikely what ifs eventually came true.

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The Origins of VUCA Leadership Today

As we all know, the British public voted in favor of Brexit on June 23, 2016. And Donald Trump was not only selected as the official Republican presidential candidate on July 20, but went on to become president.

The world order quickly took on every characteristic of VUCA, which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

This past February, Nik Gowing, former presenter for BBC World News, coauthored a report entitled “Thinking the Unthinkable: A New Imperative for Leadership in the Digital Age.” It identifies the abnormal events that constitute our new normal, from Putin’s seizure of Crimea in Ukraine to the collapse in oil prices and even the outbreak of Ebola and revelations that Volkswagen had been gaming emissions tests for years.

Could any amount of strategic planning have predicted these things? Maybe not, but a particular kind of management and leadership were required to pull us through.

The report also provides nine reasons why leaders prefer not to think the unthinkable. Those reasons include groupthink, conformity, and allostatic overload.

Groupthink

Groupthink refers to group pressure and the perception of consensus which together lead to ill-formed decisions—or even unnecessary risks. Learn to identify the warning signs of groupthink and apply countermeasures in this online course.

This October, GLOBIS University will be hosting the sixth G1 Global Conference. One of the primary topics of discussion? The political economy of Japan. We’ve been lucky enough to have Nik Gowing as chief moderator since the first event in 2011. And this year, “Thinking the Unthinkable,” the theme of his report, will also be the theme of our conference.

Nurturing VUCA leadership isn’t just about growing new leaders (though that’s certainly important for sustainably strong leadership across generations). It’s also about raising awareness and courage in the leaders we already have to talk about the unthinkable.

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Building VUCA Leadership in Japan

The United States and EU aren’t the only regions facing a VUCA future. Japan also needs to prepare itself to expect the volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous.

What if a massive earthquake were to hit Tokyo?

What if a minor skirmish in the East China Sea between the Chinese and Japanese navies were to escalate, causing a breakdown in relations?

What if electric batteries could be produced cheaply and be charged faster? Sounds great . . . until you realize how it would disrupt the whole motor industry (including Toyota, Honda, and Nissan) by offering a viable alternative to the internal combustion engine.

However “unpalatable” these scenarios may be, we cannot brush them under the carpet. “Incredulity” and “disaster myopia” (to borrow Gowing’s terminology) are not a strategy.

Strategy: Understanding the External Environment

To plan strategy on any level, you need to understand your company's external environment. In fact, your level of understanding can impact hiring, budgeting, marketing, or nearly any other part of the business world. Want to learn how to do all that? This course from GLOBIS Unlimited is the perfect first step!

Japan is a difficult place to hold genuinely inclusive conferences. Hold them in Japanese, and you exclude non-Japanese participants with language restrictions. Hold them in English, and you exclude the Japanese who can’t speak English. Interpretation tends to slow things down, reduce the level of engagement, and introduce the risk of mistranslation. Mixing languages may raise the number of attendees, but it also reduces the amount of spontaneous discussion during breaks.

But VUCA leadership is needed in every language and region. Those unthinkable scenarios need to be discussed across language barriers. This is why the G1 solution was to establish two parallel conferences: one that’s all in Japanese (G1 Summit) and one that’s all in English (G1 Global).

It’s not a perfect solution. An English-only conference comes with its own set of challenges: Flying good speakers over to Japan and putting them up in hotels costs money. Finding Japanese nationals who speak English well enough to participate in panel discussions is challenging. Since all-English events appeal to a relatively small audience in Japan, attracting corporate sponsorship and getting the attendees to pay a decent sum for their tickets can be difficult, too.

In fact, the G1 Global Conference has been running at a loss ever since it started.

Still, I remain fully committed to the event. If Japan knows what the world is thinking and the world knows what Japan is thinking, we’ll all stand a better chance of successfully “thinking the unthinkable” and confronting the challenges of leading in a VUCA world.

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