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VUCA and VUCA Prime

November 2, 2020 @ 11:20 pm CST

Cover art for Practicing Connection podcast

Cover art for Practicing Connection podcast


About this episode

(Season 1, Episode 5)

In this episode, Karen Pedersen, Dean for Global Campus at Kansas State University, talks about how the VUCA framework (volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity) has helped her better understand the world, and how the VUCA Prime framework (vision, understanding, clarity, and agility) has helped her lead in and respond to a VUCA world.

Special thanks to Nathan Grimm, who composed all of the music for the podcast; Kalin Goble, who recorded the episode introduction; Jen Chilek, for her help with OneOp promo and our podcast website; and Hannah Hyde and Terry Meisenbach for all their help with marketing.

You can stay in touch with us and connect with our Practicing Connection community by subscribing to our email list.  Subscribe now.




Kalin Goble: Welcome to Practicing Connection in a Complex World, a podcast exploring the personal stories and collective practices that empower us to work together to help each other, our families, and our communities improve our resilience and readiness in a rapidly changing world. To start our conversation, pair Jessica Beckendorf and Bob Bertsch.

Jessica Beckendorf: Hi, this is Jessica. Our world is rapidly changing and complex. Cultivating connection and increasing our exposure to different perspectives is more important than ever. Frameworks can help us do that in a way that is constructive, moving our individual relationships and our communities toward a connected and thriving future.

I had the opportunity to talk with Karen Pedersen recently about one framework that looks at complexity both from what exists, so how complex we already are, and how we can navigate the complexity.

Karen Pedersen: Hi, my name is Karen Pedersen and I currently serve as the Dean for Global Campus at Kansas State University. You may be asking yourself, “So, what is a Dean for Global Campus and what does she do?”

Global Campus at Kansas State is the online learning division or unit that supports online learning for the university. My team facilitates all of our online courses and online degree programs. Today we offer over 120-degree programs online, and so my team is very busy working across the university to support all of those online learning activities.

Since the start of COVID, it is only amplified the work that we do given that lots of courses at the university have moved online. I’ve been doing this work for 20-plus years. I love it, I love working with learners at a distance. I love just finding ways for individuals to earn degrees where maybe a college or a university is not close to them or their life and job doesn’t allow them to complete a degree in a more traditional way. That’s the work that I do every day.

I’ve worked in higher education most of my career, and I’ve always worked in units like a global campus. Units that are rather entrepreneurial. Units that are forward-thinking. Units that maybe look at the world a little bit differently than others in the academy.

I latched on to this acronym VUCA a few years ago, but VUCA it stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. It’s a concept that was borrowed from the US Army War College dating back to the late ’80s.

In recent years, it has been applied to other contexts such as business, for me, higher education to describe how we need to navigate a very dynamic and changing environment. For me, VUCA is highlighted in those four terms. Volatility, when we think about fast, turbulent or unpredictable changes without clear patterns. Clearly, this pandemic has moved us to this sense of volatility.

Uncertainty is the frequent disruptive changes where the past maybe isn’t a good predictor of the future that we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory with the potential for surprise. Complexity is when we have multiple complex intertwined interdependencies or confounding of issues amidst this global interconnectivity.

Finally, ambiguity where there’s little clarity or distinction between opportunities and threats, between cause and effect, where multiple perspectives make it difficult to predict impacts of given action. It’s that haziness of reality.

That’s the world that many of us in higher education have been living. Many of us at institutions focusing on how do we support learners in new and different ways? How do we support more learners that might be learning from a distance from an institution? VUCA really was an acronym for me that articulated where I saw us. That it was very volatile, very uncertain with a complexity and an ambiguity that many of us had not seen in our careers.

I think that some of what we’ve seen in a VUCA environment prompts us to do some really great thinking. It prompts us to derive solutions that exceed expectations, whether it’s for a learner, a customer, a stakeholder. I would describe it as not on this good bad framework, but I would just describe it as needing to push ourselves.

There are some future-ready qualities that I think about when I think about the opportunities in the career that I have chosen personally and professionally. Some of those future-ready qualities I feel position me in my organization to bring about change tend to be a leader of change initiatives. For many, that can be very helpful as they think about the work that they do every day.


Karen: If you flip the coin over and you think about VUCA but now the acronym is vision, understanding, clarity, and agility. When we think about vision, it’s about having that clear purpose that provides a compass point for others. You shift from strategic planning to maybe setting a strategic intent, and you’re very flexible in how you get there.

Understanding is when you really, as a leader or as someone in an organization or in the impromptu world, you stop, you look, you listen beyond your areas of expertise. You dialogue with others before making a decision, before moving forward. You develop this perceptual flexibility which allows you to take in different perspectives.

Clarity is that seeing through that confusion, that sense-making, where you create plausible understanding and context. You respond to what matters. You learn how to inspire others to follow through. Storytelling can be an incredible approach when you’re thinking about that clarity.

Agility is that ability to build capacity to move quickly and easily. Rapidly prototyping a solution, experimenting, synthesizing, iterating where you anticipate risk, but you don’t spend too much time looking at that long-term strategic plan. You encourage creating networks rather than hierarchies. Just being in the moment, but very focused on what’s happening around you.

Vision, understanding, clarity, and agility become the framework as we think about flipping that coin over and thinking about VUCA Prime. Recently, I had the opportunity to go through the CliftonStrengths. One of my top strengths is lifelong learner, but I think that is part of what I see as one of the future-ready qualities for that individual that really thinks about and continues to learn throughout their lifetime.

They have this curiosity. That is critically important. I think when we are connected we’re listening to diverse perspectives, we’re collaborating with individuals that we may not collaborate with on a daily basis, we’re communicating our ideas, our perspectives, our insights with others, and we’re actively listening.

I think for me, the idea of connected or connectedness is so critically important and probably more important today than really ever before because many of us are finding ourselves in a landscape that is different than what we are used to. Maybe you are on Zoom meetings for much of your day and so there might be those times when you zone out and how do you stay connected with individuals that you may not see in the office every day, or you may not have those same brainstorming sessions with them, those problem-solving strategy sessions? How do you do that in a pandemic?

To me that connectedness is so critical as we think about where we are and as we pivot to the future and I believe that organizations are really looking at the opportunities for how do you instill greater adaptability because many of us sort of signed a physical piece of paper when we got our annual contract for the year and we would have sent it back through the mail in an envelope and all of these things. It looks different when you need to do that all electronically.

It looks different for me when I have for years been serving learners at a distance and really wanted for those learners at a distance to have the same experience as that students on a campus would have, and now I’m seeing a career of services office that is doing a virtual career fair that supports all students no matter where they are, they are living in Manhattan, Kansas which is where I am today, or if they are living someplace else.

I think that adaptability that organizations and individuals, when confronted with change, adapt, they are highly resilient and so the things that we’re used to doing in person, we begin to think about in a pandemic, how do we still create those experiences and how do they look different? That to me is just human nature, where we adapt and we’re resilient and we create opportunity.

I was recently reading a white paper that was written by a colleague that works in the online learning space and higher education, and this white paper, the quote is, “The future is not a straight line from the past. It involves significant and substantial change and needs to do so if we are to respond to the significant shifts occurring in society, the environment, and the global economy, and thinking about the place where we are, the place we’d like to be and then how do we as individuals make a difference.”

That’s where I focus myself is– I read this article about creating a vision to serve one million enrolled students. There are institutions around the globe that have a million or more students. That line alone for me, creating a vision to serve one million enrolled students, it opens up my mind to think differently about what we do, how we do it in my current institution.

There’s no way that my current institution tomorrow or next year or five years from now will enroll a million students, but part of it is for me to think about what we need to look like if we did. That I think is how you begin to think beyond where you are, you think bigger, you think more impactful, you think about sort of a situation like I put myself in, and that sits in the back of my mind in meetings, as I’m going through what we’re going through. What are the big questions we need to ask and not get mired in some of the little details that keep us where we are?

I think it’s about finding others that are thinking in creative ways, that are problem-solving, that are looking beyond themselves, looking beyond their community. They are doing things for their community but they’ve got this vision, they have this greater purpose, this understanding.

I’m all about finding those connections, and you’re going to be in places where you don’t necessarily anticipate that they are going to be. It’s interesting just last week, my husband and I, we have three dogs, and we went out on a trail here, and we walked by a gentleman with two dogs and keeping our dogs down this side of the path, and his dogs are over there and he said, “Karen, is that you?” I was like, “Yes.”

Well, this was a person that I’ve only met at the university online. It’s a person that his photo is there, and my photo’s there and we are on Zoom calls but I’ve never talked with him in person, and there we were with our five dogs total, three individuals, connecting on this trail. That’s what I see is we have to keep ourselves open to finding one another and making those connections.

Jen Chilek: I’m Jen Chilek from OneOp. We bring you online professional development opportunities like this podcast along with webinars, conferences, and more, in support of those who support military families. Geared to cooperative extension educators, military family service providers, and others who support military families, much of our online content comes with continuing education credit and all of it is free. Visit us at to find more content like this geared to people like you.

Jessica: One of the things that struck me about this conversation with Karen was, as she was describing the VUCA Prime, the vision, understanding, clarity, and agility, within all of those, there are things that we can do individually and there are things that we can do collectively as we are connecting with others, but when she talks a little later on about them, what are those big questions?

Then you think back to the VUCA Prime, which involves individual actions and collective actions, it really made me think about this idea of being able to be zoomed in and zoomed out. Zoomed out to understand what’s happening in the world, what do I really care about, and then zooming in to match your actions and what you say, and how you connect with people to what you really care about.

Bob Bertsch: I think that’s really a rich practice to explore, Jessica, because it takes practice to do that and I think it is important from lots of different frameworks who talk about environmental activism or community development or lots of different places we always have this conversation about global and local, big picture and small picture and that ability to, as you are saying, zoom in and zoom out to have some things that guide us from a global big picture, to put it in the VUCA Prime language, from a vision standpoint, so to be able to do that kind of thinking and be comfortable with that but also not get lost in that kind of thinking and be able to zoom in and focus on making things clear on that clarity and taking agile action is really important.

I’m so glad you brought that up because it’s easy to take these two frameworks, VUCA and VUCA Prime, and be either too expansive with them, it feels so big and so uncontrollable that it’s hard to do anything with it or to be overly reductive where you’re like, “Uh, I know how to handle VUCA, I’ll just do VUCA Prime, boom, boom, boom, problem solved, I’ve done my four steps.” I think we need to be in both spaces and be able to move between those spaces as you described.

Jessica: Yes. I started to think about this after this conversation I really- I’m not sure that I am as intentional as I thought I was about doing it, about thinking about what’s happening in the world, what I really care about and acting on that. I think that I just allow my day to day activities to rule what I’m doing and I hope that I’m acting and I think I’m acting in a way that [laughs] that honors what I value, but also, am I stepping back and looking at what’s going on in the world.

I read the news. I do keep up with things, but I think it’s really important to add this as a practice. I already try to think about my values and I already try to do some reflection, but I feel like this wouldn’t be very difficult for me to add at all and to think about whether that’s on a daily or weekly basis. To think about how am I zooming out and then reflecting on how am I acting on what’s important to right now. What’s important to the way the world is right now? How am I addressing that in my day to day actions?

Bob: I think it also is important to know yourself. We’ve talked about this many times. I think already in the podcast about self awareness and self reflection and how important it is to practicing connection in a complex world. Knowing what you might have an affinity for. For me, I have an affinity for zooming out. That tends to be where I gravitate towards and I struggle a little bit with zooming in.

For me, when I’m thinking of a reflective practice that might help me do both, I might focus more on what are the things that help me zoom in. In our work we’ve done a few things that come to mind. You don’t like things like curiosity walks, where you walk around and you’re just intentionally noticing things. Noticing details of things. In meditation practice, I think that’s something that helps you notice details, tapping into your breath or a particular feeling and meditating on that.

For me, I think that’s a reflective practice that you could concentrate more on for people who have the same affinity that I do, but for someone who struggles a little bit more to zoom out, to have vision and values behind their actions, you might take a different practice.

Jessica: I’m actually only just now realizing that I might be living my life in a more zoomed-in way. [chuckles] I mean, there’s no good or bad here. I always thought of myself as a big picture person and I think that, to some degree, I am. I enjoy being able to live in that space. I’m actually- I don’t think I’m doing it as much lately.

This has been really eye opening and interesting to me because ideally it would be nice to be able to zoom in and zoom out really on a day to day basis, and to be able to think in this way that is more wholistic if you want to- I don’t know if that’s the right word, but it feels right for now. I think I’ve been separating the two worlds.

Bob: I think we all do that. I find myself doing that. It’s a struggle to not take it as binary. In the examples I gave before of environmentalism or community development, people often treat it as a binary, like, “Oh, we either have to be global or we have to be local.” Our actions need to be highly collective or we need to start at home and be highly individual or in small groups or something.

I think that is a struggle. What you’re saying is to move from one perspective to the other and that’s potentially where VUCA Prime can be helpful. For me I think when we talk about VUCA Prime, vision and understanding, really are those big picture things. Do we have something that’s driving us and how are we making sense of the world through understanding? Then clarity and agility tend- for me, are the smaller picture, the more individual, local focused things that are centered on actions. Even within the frameworks there are some things that we can take away.

Jessica: I think that one practice that could be beneficial for us all to give a try would be carving out sometime during a weekly or even daily reflection. Hopefully you are able to carve out some time, at least weekly, it’s a really, really good practice to have even if you’re only spending 15 minutes just to think about the past week. How did it go? How were you able to do things that invigorate you?

That aside, if we could take a few minutes to carve out some time to reflect on, “Are you moving the worlds that you’re able to influence in a way that you’d like to see it go? How are you navigating the complexity, the uncertainty and how are you doing it in a way that is moving the needle in the direction you’d like to see a change in?”

Bob: That’s great advice, Jessica. It reminds me of a quote I recently read from Adrienne Maree Brown, author of Emergent Strategy, such a talented author and positive voice in the world. I just will share this quote from a blog post that she shared. “Even if we don’t have a clear sense of the exact solutions to fix the future, we should have a clear sense of how we want to feel in ourselves, in our relationships with each other, in community and in relationship to the planet. Those feelings aren’t for the far off future. They are guidance to what we must be seeding and practicing now, right now.”


Bob: Thanks for joining us for this episode of Practicing Connection in a Complex World. If you want to learn more about VUCA, VUCA Prime, and everything else that we talked about in today’s podcast, you can check out our show notes on OneOp website at

I want to share our gratitude today with Karen Pedersen. Thanks so much Karen for the time that you took to share with us what you’ve learned about VUCA and VUCA Prime. We’d also like to thank Adrienne Maree Brown for her words of wisdom as well as Hanna Hyde and Teri Meisenbach for helping us with promotion and Nathan Grimm for composing and performing all the music you hear on the podcast. I hope you’ll join us for the next episode. In the meantime, keep practicing.


[00:29:35] [END OF AUDIO]


November 2, 2020
11:20 pm CST
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