General John Casey, the retired Army Chief of Staff, was asked to give a lecture about the VUCA World.  He said yes even though it had no idea what VUCA meant. After Casey hung up the phone he googled VUCA.  To his astonishment, Casey found the term originated with the U. S. Army War College, and institution he was in charge of as the head of the Army. VUCA is an acronym for Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous, the way the Army think tank described the world after the fall of the Soviet Union.  This was a major inflection point for the Army. Previously, it knew who its adversary was.  The Army knew its mission was stopping any Soviet aggression. It knew what types of weapons and the number of soldiers needed to accomplish that mission.

The good news was the fall of the Soviet Union removed the major adversary of the U. S. Army. The bad news was the Army was seemingly deprived of its main mission.  The Cold War was a bipolar[1] world where the calculus of power was much simpler to solve than in the years to follow.  Army doctrine, tactics, organization and weaponry needed to be updated to fight a different type of war.  Now the Army had to deal with a multipolar world filled with both conventional and nonconventional threats. As a result, the Army had to reinvent itself and its mission.  General Casey was instrumental in that process.

Not For Profit organizations will often find themselves operating in their own VUCA World.  The onset of the corona virus is just one recent example of operating in an uncertain environment.  Even without such a horrific problem to deal with, look at the issues any NFP will face: shortages of funding, government regulation, allegations of sexual misconduct, potential financial mismanagement, lack of qualified personnel and on and on and on.  

How should NFPs deal with this?  General Casey had several suggestions for any organization, but there is one that stood out from the rest. It is important for leaders to spend a large portion of their time “outside” rather than “inside” their organization.  Casey illustrates this suggestion with an example from his life. When he was a lieutenant colonel Casey was in command of a battalion of approximately 800 soldiers.  They were predominantly from one branch of the military: infantry, armored, etc. When he was promoted to colonel, he was given a brigade to command. A brigade is a headquarters consisting of multiple battalions tailored for a specific mission.[2] The soldiers under his command were no longer all from one branch of the Army. A brigade could consist of infantry, armored, aviation, artillery and other types of battalions put together for one specific mission.  It could then be resized for future operations.   Brigade commanders had to transcend their previously much more narrow focus and learn how to manage many more and different moving parts.

Casey learned to do this by focusing outward.  He spent more than half his time looking outward rather than inward, learning what was expected from him and his units.  He gained an understanding of how the “outside world” assessed his units and what type of changes he needed to make to his command. Eventually Casey used this technique to reinvent the Army mission. By spending time “outside his unit” he could more effectively set strategic goals for his organization.

Casey also believed in not stepping on the toes of his subordinates. As Casey rose through the ranks, he found the people around him were more and more competent.  Not only were they capable of running the unit, they wanted to run the unit.  His subordinates wanted to show what they were capable of and their competence as officers. Casey realized by staying “in the unit” he was trampling on not only their effectiveness but their aspirations. He maximized their effectiveness by staying out of their way. 

How does all of this translate into the NFP world? The board of directors and executive management need to spend time “outside the organization”.  By venturing outside the safe confines of their offices they will learn what is occurring in the VUCA world and learn how to respond to it.  They will be better able to set strategic plans for their organization.  In order to do this, the board and executive management need to make sure there is a capable middle management being trained to eventually run the NFP.  By surrounding the executive director with such help, the board assists the executive director in being “outside” the organization. The middle management should be able to handle the day to day problems without the involvement of the executive director.  By the same token, the executive director has to strive to be outside of the organization. Staying “inside” managing internal processes will only deprive middle management of an opportunity to shine.

The United States Army has certainly suffered its share of setbacks over its long and very storied history.  However, it has been successful in reinventing itself many times during its history. Part of its resilience is its ability to look outside of itself and dealing with the VUCA world.  It is something for NFP management to consider.

[1] The description of a bipolar and multipolar world is attributed to Henry Kissinger, the former Secretary of State. This distinction has tremendous implications for American foreign policy.  That is well beyond the scope of this article though.

[2] A brigade could have as many as 5,500 soldiers assigned to it.  Put another way, a brigade is the size of a major corporation!