The Big Stress Test
Our mettle is being radically stress-tested now. What used to be hypotheticals – “What if our world was dramatically altered?” – have become today’s realities. The global pandemic is just one of a number of social, economic and technological shocks that are creating internal whiplash for businesses and organizations of every stripe and size. The acronym “VUCA” – shorthand for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous – captures the zeitgeist of the times with uncanny precision.
Every organisation is being tested. So, how do we use what we’ve learned?

What organisations need now, more than ever, is “psychological resilience.” The we’ve-got-this confidence that comes from facing tough demands and finding solutions, despite constraints and barriers, is invaluable in the midst of turmoil. Now is the time to capitalize on that experience by intentionally reinforcing and internalizing the key traits of systems that thrive in unpredictable conditions. Now is the best time to “VUCA- proof” your culture.

Confronting multiple major stressors and navigating uncharted territory is always nail-bitingly uncomfortable. Yet, for many organisations and communities, rising to unforeseen challenges has surfaced surprising depths of courage and creativity. Mobilizing teams, implementing new services, fundamentally reconfiguring workflows, tackling logistics, health and safety issues – all at breathtaking speed – has been a powerful affirmation for many teams. The future is unknowable but one thing that is clear – based on the science behind behavioral psychology, biology and complex, adaptive systems – is that a flexible, ready-for- whatever’s-next culture is a huge advantage in terms of long-term sustainability.

Building a shock-proof organisation

How do adaptable organisations absorb and respond to the unexpected? Nurturing shock-resistant organisations and cultures starts with understanding the essential capacities that can be actively cultivated to strengthen responsiveness in the face of unknowns. Focus on specific capacities that have been shown to enable teams and organisations to thrive in VUCA environments such as being adaptive, sensitive to subtle changes, resilient, interconnected, diverse and cooperative.

Tools like the VucaCanvas®, a framework that’s been distilled from years of research on the dynamics of biological and social systems, provide organisations with powerful self-assessment tools for calibrating the robustness and flexibility of internal attitudes. While these type of character traits make sense intuitively, these are often the kind of “soft power” skills that many organisations value but don’t operationalize, measure or reward in systematic ways.

Six capacities in a framework

For any organisation, community or institution, now is a unique opportunity to map its strengths and weaknesses and shape the essential capacities to prepare for a VUCA world. The VucaCanvas® framework is the groundwork for easy-to-use canvases, e-tools and (online) workshop designs.

The picture below shows the framework with six capacities. Each capacity is described in further detail in separate canvasses. The capacities are not randomly, they are based on disciplines in science such as evolutionary biology and systems thinking.

VUCA CANVAS version EN-180621.001
Consider how stakeholders would rate these qualities in your organisation?

The capacity to easily change direction to suit different conditions is the essence of adaptability. In adaptive organisations, leaders create the right conditions for exploring new approaches, ideas and innovations as the environment evolves. Too often, traditional management sees experimentation as inefficient. Examples of adaptive organisations include Nokia’s evolution from paper manufacturer and tire factory to mobile phones.


No organisation can predict the future. However, 'sensing' organisations are attuned to early signals and patterns that are harbingers of bigger social and economic shifts. They are disciplined about gathering diverse information as input into scenario planning to explore alternative futures and pre-empt potential threats. Shell is a well-known example of an organisation that is highly disciplined in taking the pulse of what’s happening in the world and adapting scenarios and operations accordingly.


Resilience is the ability to absorb shocks and recover quickly to original form. Buffers like surplus resources and 'rainy day' funds are especially important in VUCA conditions where surprises and shocks are frequent. Many large firms overpay dividends to shareholders, leaving them with less to ability to build cash buffers, support workers and reinvest in the business. Reserve Bank of Australia reports that over the past three decades dividend payouts have trended up to more than 80 cents of every dollar of corporate profits. In some companies, dividends payouts have exceeded 100% of profits.


Connective is an important capacity to interlink within the existing eco- system. Preserving relations with a variety of trusted partners. Carefully thinking about which partners can add to the value creation. Another important element is co-creating collective knowledge within the eco- system. For example, the choice of multiple suppliers in different regions initially seems inefficient but is far more effective for continuity in a crisis. Many countries have suffered the effects of being too reliant on China, for example for PPE equipment.


Diversity in an organisation stimulates adaptability in a rapidly changing environment by enabling the organisation to tap a broader range of partners, perspectives, ideas and innovations. Diversity is also about the mix of people in an organisation. You need different perspectives when it comes to dealing with complex challenges. Philips NAT lab is a wonderful illustration of how a business consciously cultivates a diversity of ideas and innovations.


An organisation flourishes when people trust and work together on the basis of a clear intention. A group must be able to quickly change direction to determine alternative pathways. When the 'intention' is clear and there’s mutual trust, teams can respond quickly and autonomously yet remain in synch. This is especially vital in a VUCA environment. Buurtzorg is a good example of an organisation that has developed this capacity flawlessly. Before the Corona crisis reached the Netherlands, health care workers mobilized quickly to  source masks and other PPE care material. 

From best-practice to unique ecosystems

Developing the six capabilities is a necessity for every organisation. Only then is it possible to survive a crisis and continue independently. Each organisation is unique and has its own mix of the six capabilities. There is no 'best practice' but there are examples. It is also not the case that every capacity has to be 100% developed, that depends on the type of organisation and the ecosystem in which it operates.

A scan and a workshop

Certified practitioners work with small and large clients globally. They facilitate high-impact (on-location and on-line) workshops in which participants assess and calibrate the capacities for their organisation, community or eco-system. High-energy, high-impact. Together preparing for the future

Workshop on location (5-100 participants)

An inspiring workshop setup at a physical location. Six tables with canvasses, Duplo bricks and clear tasks. Facilitators stimulate participants to enter into a dialogue, share observations, gain insights and agree on how to take action. It’s this collective experience that creates the capacity for reshaping an organisation. The basic set-up is easy, the art of hosting makes the difference.

Workshop online (5-10.000 participants)

During a virtual trajectory participants apply the framework using a quick-scan and an interactive collaboration platform. They provide as many perspectives and stories as possible. Sense-making and meaning-making software will help to sort massive amounts of information. We use online video meetings to further discuss the outcomes. Enabling participants to calibrate their organisation to become vibrant and fit-for-future. The basic set-up is easy, virtual facilitation makes the difference.


The VucaCanvas have been introduced by ChangeLabs in 2015. Rik Berbé MSc started to integrate the research on the dynamics of biological and social systems in his work as organisational development practitioner. During the last years a community of practitioners (CoP) designed the VucaCanvas® theoretical framework. A solid fundament for easy-to-use canvasses, quick-scans and workshop formats. The development is an ongoing proces together with partners,  practitioners and universities.