4 survival strategies for IT chaos

Your IT survival guide for the new business normal: Four steps for mastering the world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

Every time Stuart Kippelman's 10-year-old daughter gets into the car with her father, she insists the Bluetooth isn't working. It takes about 10 seconds to sync and power up the music, and to a preteen, 10 seconds equals broken.

Today's youth are, of course, tomorrow's customers. "They demand immediacy, which is driving what IT has to deal with," says Kippelman, who is CIO at Covanta Energy and a Computerworld blogger.

But the need for speed is just the tip of the iceberg. Across all industries, IT teams are up against unprecedented volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, also known as VUCA. A term that originated in the military, VUCA aptly sums up what CIOs face every day in today's turbulent business environment.

"VUCA includes currency devaluation, natural disasters happening all over the place and, from an IT standpoint, a big proliferation in data and cyberattacks," says Linda Clement-Holmes, senior vice president of Global Business Services at Procter & Gamble. "We have to deal with all of these things."

The list goes on: Thanks to cheap and ultra-efficient technology, new competitors can come out of the woodwork; global privacy rules and industry regulations are continually changing; and users' expectations -- driven largely by their experiences with consumer technology -- are through the roof.

"In the old business model, big ate small," says John Sullivan, a professor of management at San Francisco State University and former chief talent officer at Agilent Technologies. But in the VUCA world, "fast eats slow," he says. "Facebook didn't exist six years ago, and now, a billion-dollar company is run by someone who didn't graduate college and wears a hoodie. Before, you always knew your competitor, but now, dominant players might come from any industry and come overnight."

Here's an IT survival guide for the age of VUCA.

1. Learn Flexibility

The only way to manage the chaos is to become super highly adaptable, IT leaders say. Throw out your five-year strategy; VUCA defies long-term planning. Also jettison multimillion-dollar project plans and technology investments. Strive instead to become "asset-light," relying on IT services you can quickly expand or unplug as business conditions blink. Perhaps most important (and most counterintuitive): You should simultaneously pursue competing goals.

In a VUCA world, "what used to work for five years might work for six months. Because you can't plan for a particular thing, you have to plan for a range of things," says Sullivan. "Moving in different directions at the same time must become the norm."

VUCA, CIOs say, impacts everything -- from the way you structure an IT organization and hire talent to how you cut costs, boost productivity, and launch new revenue-generating products and services. John Halamka, CIO at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School, also says the rise of VUCA presents a golden opportunity for innovation.

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