Taking Risks to Adapt and Succeed in a VUCA World

“Progress always involves risks. You can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first.”
—Frederick Wilcox

Today’s college athletics’ surroundings are continuously changing and becoming increasingly complex with advancements in technology, communication and engagement with donors and fans. There is constant pressure to keep up with an ever-evolving industry and its trends. Those who are not willing or capable of adapting to the changes can experience detrimental consequences within their organization. Being willing to make the effort to change includes a degree of risk and uncertainty. Naturally, this creates an unpredictable environment that human beings are biologically wired to want to avoid.

“Yes, risk-taking is inherently failure-prone. Otherwise, it would be called sure-thing-taking.”
—Jim McMahon

Like college athletics, the business world is inherently complex and experiences many external factors that organizations and individual leaders must manage and prepare for in advance. The business world has taken to using “VUCA,” a military acronym used to describe volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous conditions and environments. In an industry that is heavy in all of these attributes, being willing to take the risk for innovative change is at an all-time importance. But what are some ways to approach taking innovative risks?

“You’ll always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” —Wayne Gretzky

When looking at a changing, complex landscape with many uncertainties, the first step is often to analyze and weigh possible outcomes as pros and cons from a decision or action. While this is important, you want to avoid the possibility of analysis paralysis to occur. Analysis paralysis occurs when the time-sensitive process to making decisions comes to a halt with an unnecessarily long discovery stage that can end up costing the group an opportunity. Business Journalist Anne Kreamer states in an article that appeared in the Harvard Business Review, “Not taking action has costs that can be as consequential as taking risks; it’s simply less natural to calculate and pay attention to the ‘what-ifs’ of inaction.” An example of how inactivity can be just as harmful as the risk of making tough decisions is what occurred at the University of Missouri in Fall of 2015. The school administration refused to acknowledge and participate in difficult discussions over racism on the campus led to an escalating, incendiary situation that ultimately resulted in the school President being forced to resign. Not taking the risks of making tough decisions can leave you behind the industrial and societal curves and you will eventually have to pay the price.

Deciding to make the commitment to a change that is supported by your organizational values will help minimize the unattractive risk of uncertainty. Successful human development consultant Terry Schaefer explains in Forbes, “Values-based decision making is the keel that keeps the organism (people, processes, procedures and practices) balanced, honest and moving forward. When your values are well defined, fully understood by all, and emphasized regularly, decisions are made easily from within the framework employed.” The countless external factors and threats surrounding individuals and organizations that force them to make tough decisions to pivot their strategy or tactics will seem less daunting when you control your internal environment that are your core principles and values.

Taking risks ultimately benefits organizations and individuals in that they get a better sense of self, strengthened values, and make progress to continue adapting and thriving in a complex, VUCA-filled world.


A Hunger for Certainty” –David Rock, Psychology Today (October 25, 2009)

How to Overcome the ‘Analysis Paralysis’ of Decision-Making” –Jeff Boss, Forbes (March 20, 2015)

Leading in an Increasingly VUCA World” –Eric J. McNulty, Strategy+Business (October 27, 2015)

Nine Ways to Incorporate Values-Based Decision Making Into Your Career Choices” –Forbes Coaches Council, Forbes (August 10, 2016)

Not Taking Risks is the Riskiest Career Move of All” –Anne Kreamer, Harvard Business Review (April 16, 2015)

50 Awesome Quotes on Risk Taking” –Mitch Ditkoff, Huffington Post (January 8, 2013)

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