Opening the Indian Society of Advertisers’ Global CEO conference on ‘Navigating a VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) World’ on 30 October was R Gopalakrishnan, director, Tata Sons. In a speech that was greatly inspired by nature and drew several references from science and politics, Gopalakrishnan began by saying that VUCA is the natural state of the world - and not a new phenomenon.
He voiced the view that no other species in the world, except humans, assumed the world to be ‘anything but VUCA’. “Human beings are the only species that think it’s SPCC (Simple, Predictable, Calm and Clear), which is the opposite of VUCA. Hence, humans have created a number of technological developments so as to maintain this artificial world of SPCC,” he said.
Gopalakrishnan argued that while the world tries to stay in step with VUCA developments, there’s a constant gap. He surmised that it’s not technology that is lagging but the human response to change that is very slow, unlike in the animal world. That explained the focus of his talk – on human adaptiveness.
Learning from nature
“We have forgotten to look at nature. When you look at nature you find an interesting contrast. We have been mentally wired to achieve efficiency, get more bang for the buck... but in nature the focus is on effectiveness and not on efficiency,” he said, adding that efficiency that humans focus on does not necessarily create effectiveness.
Drawing from nature, Gopalakrishnan advocated the need to stop thinking ‘in straight lines’ ‘like P&G or Unilever brand managers’. He drew attention to a fly, which has complex vision comprising of ‘4,000 eyes’, each looking in a different direction and hence allowing it a 360-degree view. He said that organisations (media, government, companies, shareholders) were like these eyes, each having multiple departments with different perspectives on issues. His submission was that institutions that have to respond to the VUCA challenge need to create a co-ordinated effort in order to be effective.
“There is something spiritual between nature and spirals. In nature, straight lines do not work,” he said, pointing to planets revolving around the sun, or for that matter, water spiralling down the sink.
Gopalakrishnan suggested that instead of trying to control turbulence (volatility), humans should learn to leverage it. He cited examples from India’s past where political leaders chose to leverage the turbulence, with the case of liberalisation in 1991 led by then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao. “At the first Congress meet at Tirupati, he made a speech where he acknowledged that the West had nothing to teach India and that East has its own tradition. And hence he chose to learn from Thailand and subsequently other countries. And things worked out fine,” said the Tata Sons director.
He urged the audience to rediscover intuition. Pointing out that our ancestors were all extremely intuitive, Gopalakrishnan noted that only when rationality gained precedence did intuition take a back seat. He said that in life, intuition has a role to play - and ignoring it makes one unprepared for VUCA. “After you have analysed things rationally and rationality does not work anymore, then you have to go by your intuition. This is a faculty that we will be foolish to completely ignore and I believe that with the VUCA world coming, Indians are far more intuitive and hence can deal better with it,” he added.
The cave cricket species, which lives several feet under the ground without light and has survived for millenniums - with arms and lengths five times the size of its body - was the next subject that Gopalakrishnan drew insight from.
“If I apply the metaphor, it puts out its arms and legs, feels what the dangers in the VUCA world it lives in are, and figures out where food is, where predator is and where safety is. And it has survived millenniums. Similarly, if one spends more money on market research and understanding consumer trends, one can manage well in the VUCA world,” he said.
Gopalakrishnan surmised that in the VUCA world, a company must adopt a new attitude towards competition. The CEO ‘gnashing his teeth’ at the very mention of competition must change, he said, as competition is vital to help the company renew itself.