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  • Foto van schrijverAnna Snel VUCA Academy

5 lessons we can learn from Christmas about dealing with VUCA problems

As I have 2 passions: VUCA problems and Christmas, I thought why not combine these two and see what one (Christmas) can teach us about dealing with the other: VUCA. Respectively, what can we learn from advent calendars (#1). decorating early (#2), Christmas lights (#3), top-heavy decorations (#4) and Christmas movies (#5), for how we should be dealing with VUCA problems.

Lesson #1: Advent calendars

It's December 1rst, so you can open the first door of your advent calendar today. Nowadays you have all sorts of advent calendars, where you receive a present every day for 24 days, to count down to Christmas. There are calendars with chocolate, with toys, with cosmetics, interior items, culinary gifts and even pets have their own calendars. As far as I know, this variety of calendars is a recent development, I used to always get a calendar with a chocolate behind each door. But even though you were meant to count down to Christmas, by opening one door a day, mine was often empty by December 3rd. In fact it takes quite a bit of patience to open just one door every day. Especially if your name is Snel (meaning fast in Dutch).

With VUCA issues, patience is also a virtue and we often have just as much problems with it as I used to have with my chocolates. Of course, it is annoying if you have been taught something different for all your life. During tests and exams we had to answer all questions within a certain time. When applying for jobs, we have to complete all kinds of assignments as quickly as possible. In our work we must solve problems as efficiently and quickly as possible. Running to the finish line is appreciated highly in every context. While with VUCA problems we have to be aware that there is no clear finish-line anyway, so where exactly are you going to run to? And we really have to learn that every intervention we make in a VUCA problem causes things to move, to shift, to change. So the situation you started with is now different, and you have to recalibrate again, see what the right move might be in this new situation. We have to work step by step, iteratively, and patiently see where things are going and what, with the information we now have, would be the best step for us.

An advent calendar only has 24 doors and therefore a clear ending, so that is where the comparison with VUCA problems goes awry. But you can test your patience on a small scale, to practice for the big VUCA work.

Next lesson: What does research about the link between early Christmas decorating and happiness teach us about dealing with VUCA problems?

Lesson #2: Decorating early

Things are starting to shift in the Netherlands, but there is still a kind of implicit 'rule' that says you should wait with decorating for Christmas until Sinterklaas (the origin of Santa Claus whose birthday we celebrate on December 5th) has left the country. I have come up with a compromise for this: I start decorating way before Dec 5th (given the quantity, this is necessary) but I don't post photos before that day at 7 p.m. Friends know that I am decorating much earlier so every year I get links to the same messages, saying “People who are early with their Christmas decorations are happier”. And always preceded by 'Research shows that...', 'According to science...', 'Science says...' or 'Proven:...'. It has even been on the Cordis website for a few days now, under trending science...

I am indeed quite happy with the semi-Christmas show I build at home every year, but I was also curious about how this was studied.

Well, with the risk of appearing the Grinch herself here: there are some life coaches and psychologists who once speculated about this in interviews with websites Today and Unilad using words like possibly, could, might and maybe. By the way, there is a study that was done in 1989 on what people think about people who have decorated the outside of their house. They were seen as more social, among other things. But unless you become extremely happy when your neighbors see you as a social person, the link between early decoration and happiness seems rather shaky, to say the least.

In terms of VUCA problems, I think there are two connections that can be made. One has to do with the content of the ‘studies’, the other with blindly accepting information.

Content: the desire for simplicity and predictability

First the contents. The reasons that life coaches and psychologists give for the existence of that link between decorating and happiness are things like nostalgia, it reminds you of your childhood, a simpler time, nice colors and lights in dark days, those sorts of things.

You can also imagine this tendency regarding VUCA problems. If everything is or seems complex and ambiguous and we don't know where it is going and what it all means, then some people have a tendency to try 'tame' the situation. Just pretend that things are stable, predictable, simple and clear, and hope that it will all blow over or turn out fine by itself. Kind of a VUCA equivalent of cuddling up on the couch with your blanket, curtains closed and watching Christmas movies. Unfortunately, reality does not become any less VUCA if we pretend it does not exist. So no matter how nice it can be to dream of simpler times, we will really have to confront the situation and get to work on dealing with it. Ignoring VUCA problems in the hope or illusion that we can tame and control everything will ultimately not work. Coincidentally, psychiatrist Damiaan Denys spoke about accepting versus ignoring the VUCA world and what consequences that can have for people in the Dutch TV program Buitenhof (in Dutch).

Substantiation: do your homework

The other link between ‘studies’ on early decorating and VUCA problems is of a different nature: no matter how speculative the coaches and psychologists are in the interviews, the information is accepted indiscriminately and expressed much more firmly. Of course a catchy title attracts more attention, which is probably why everyone keeps sending the articles to me, but the information is not correct. There is no research to be found by any of those coaches and psychologists, no studies have been published, and believe me: I have searched.

This is also a link with how we deal with VUCA problems. These are difficult and messy enough in and of themselves, we don't need a pile of dis- or misinformation on top of that. Especially when things change quickly and are uncertain/unpredictable, it is useful to keep a close eye on whether what you think is going on is actually going on. Where does your information come from, and is it substantiated? Are we talking about the same thing or is everyone using the same words but with completely different (even contradictory?) interpretations? Especially when we share incorrect information with others, it takes on a life of its own, and we only make the mess bigger.

Especially when our issues are complex and all kinds of meanings are intertwined, it makes sense to make room to find out how everything  is connected. It is not wise to blindly accept nice-sounding information that confirms what we already know or hope. There are often many parties involved in our VUCA problems, so the least we can do is ensure that we have done our homework properly.

PS: during the search for the source of the decoration-'research' I came across some other gems, such as a mathematical formula with which you can calculate the optimal amount of decorations for your tree and even an entire Oxford Handbook of Christmas!)

Next lesson: What do tangled up Christmas lights teach you about dealing with VUCA?

Lesson #3: Christmas lights

Not everyone likes the whole decorating and adorning spectacle for Christmas like me. One of the biggest nuisances has to be that you take the Christmas lights from the attic and they are tangled in a huge knot. So you first have to try to untangle them. That is not a straightforward activity. It's a matter of probing here, shaking there, and seeing where movement occurs. Hastily pulling, tearing and yanking it only makes things worse, let alone tackling the tangle with scissors. You don’t cut the knot of lights into pieces because it’s easier to untangle separate pieces instead of the whole (at least: I hope you don’t…

This also goes for VUCA problems. When you try to understand VUCA problems, whether you do this based on the 4 letters of VUCA, or the insights from the Cynefin-model, or the 10 characteristics of Wicked Problems, you notice that all these letters and insights and characteristics are related. It’s not easy to view them separately. We often have a tendency to want to solve things 1, 2, 3. But when problems are VUCA, all kinds of interests are mixed up, everything is constantly in flux, we all look at the situation in our own way and simple solutions just don’t work. Even worse: they can often be counterproductive. Just like you don’t cut a knot of Christmas lights into pieces to untangle the pieces separately, you can’t cut up VUCA problems into pieces to analyse and tackle the parts. It may seem simpler to divide the parts and think that if you solve the separate parts you will have solved the whole problem, but that is not how this works. Because then you forget the relations between the parts. They are all connected, they are interdependent. That is what makes the situation so complex.

Just like cutting the tangle of Christmas lights with scissors will make matters worse, so our simple and self-evident ‘solutions’ might lead us astray in our VUCA-problems. Every time you do something about the problem, the whole thing changes and you are actually dealing with a new situation. Step by step you hopefully move in a desired direction. But here too, the following applies: take it easy! Pulling, yanking and cutting does more harm than good. It is a matter of patiently picking, probing and prodding to get the situation moving. And patience is an issue for the solution-focused, the running-towards-the-finish-line and the I’m-all-about-efficiency ones among us. They can practice their patience on the Christmas-lights (by the way, they should already be practicing their patience with their advent calendar! (see lesson #1 ;-)) in the hopes of preparing themselves for the real VUCA work!

Next lesson: what do we learn from how to decorate the tree about dealing with VUCA problems?

Lesson #4: Top-heavy decorations

When I came home from work last week I saw that my downstairs neighbours were working on their Christmas tree. Strange, because that tree had already been up for a while. It turned out that they had come home to see that the tree was on the floor. Apparently, they had hung all the ornaments and lights on the front and the thing had been top-heavy. Also, I heard in the Mediameiden podcast (episode 77, in Dutch) that this happens in TV shows too: they decorate the parts that viewers can see and the back of the tree is empty (and one of the trees almost fell over in that podcast story too). Funny because the subject of this post has been in my mind for a long time: how people decorate their trees teaches us a lot about how to deal with VUCA problems.

For those who do not live in a huge mansion, the tree is often placed against a wall or in a corner. And well, no one sees the back, right? So why would you pay attention to it and hang lights and ornaments there? We're frugal too, aren't we? Do you know what those ornaments - because you can often no longer call them balls - cost? Let alone putting in all the time, work and effort you have to do on decorating that thing, you're not going to do that if no one is going to pay attention to it. The back of the Christmas tree often comes off rather poorly.

You also see this with VUCA issues. There is always a part that everyone sees and is paying attention to. And if everyone is looking, then we have to do something about it. Questions are asked, it is being measured, there are quality marks and awards to be won. But it is precisely the difficult, uncomfortable, messy aspects, the aspects of which we do not actually know what is going on, what we should or can do with them, what they mean, where they are going or what caused them, that we prefer to ignore.

So we keep paying all of our attention to the side that all of us have already seen. These are often the concrete actions and plans, the reports and checklists, the low-hanging fruit and everything that is manageable, controllable, and measurable. In the Theory of Change we call this the ‘sphere of control’. But if you don't pay attention to that invisible side of the issue, you have a good chance that it will collapse. Perhaps it is a better idea to share some of the attention we give to the known visible measurable aspects with the unknown VUCA aspects. That unexplored side is where there is most to discover and learn.

In terms of decorating the tree, you can also look at forces other than gravity that cause it to topple over or otherwise break: the surprises in the tree. And I don't mean the fun Christmas traditions such as glass pickles that people hang in their trees, but surprises like dogs and cats.

First let's mention the pickle because not everyone knows this tradition yet: for a few years now you have been seeing them among all the other different Christmas ornaments hanging in shops and garden centers. There are all kinds of stories about where the Christmas pickle comes from, but experts do not yet agree on the origin. The idea is that a glass pickle is hung on the tree and the first person to find it on Christmas morning will receive an extra present or good luck in the coming year. So if you know this tradition, you can make a plan, set your alarm early that day and the gift or the year of happiness is yours. You make a plan and you act.

You see less pleasant (but very funny!) surprises every year in the many viral compilations with cats and dogs that attack, pull down and demolish Christmas trees. It is not really possible to make sensible plans for these surprises that will lead to success. Here you need to prepare for what may come and adapt. Put a fence around the tree, buy unbreakable balls, hang the tree from the ceiling (which apparently doesn't always help ;-)).

You can also see the difference between pickles and pets in your tree with VUCA problems. They are rarely as simple and predictable as the pickle tradition, so how do you deal with them? Perhaps you should think less in terms of planning and acting (plan & act) and more in terms of preparing for and adapting to (prepare & adapt). VUCA means that you can reasonably assume that things will happen that you have not foreseen and that are beyond your control. But it is not that you can no longer do anything and that you have to sit helplessly and wait for what is going to happen to you. You can remain alert and keep a critical eye on the direction in which reality is moving, with an open mind. You can never predict it completely, but there are often all kinds of signals that afterwards, when something surprising has finally happened, we say: we could have seen this or that coming, but we weren't paying attention. And if we had picked up on those weak signals, we might have been able to prepare in advance...

You can imagine that a tree that is already top-heavy because attention has only been paid to one side, is also a much easier prey for that cat or dog. Same applies to our VUCA problems: if you have only paid attention to what is in your sphere of control and have actually ignored everything that is VUCA, you will also be more likely to be in trouble when disruptions come by...

Next and final lesson: what can we learn from Christmas movies about how to deal with VUCA problems?

Lesson #5: Christmas movies

December 24th. The lists of what to listen to and watch these days are all around. Of course the Top2000 (yearly Dutch music chart), but also lists of Christmas films and series. And while the music charts seem to be about quality, this seems to be less the case with the lists of Christmas films and series. There are some rather corny life lessons in it (Japke D Bouma in NRC, in Dutch), they are 'guilty pleasures' and 'fast food,' (NOS, in Dutch), and it ranges from 'nice to rubbish' (NRC, in Dutch).

A few years ago I thought: there are so many things identical in all those Christmas films, can’t I make a bingo game out of it? So I decided to take notes everytime I watched Christmas movies, of what happened in them, in order to discover patterns. About that time a Ducth TV channel decided to rename itself The Christmas Channel and to broadcast 2 Christmas movies every weekday and in 4 per day during the weekend, so my plans got a bit out of hand. I am now at over 250 with still at least 200 more to go, and counting. But if you watch a lot of Christmas movies, and I especially mean the corny, guilty pleasure fast food stuff, so the sappy rom-com Hallmark Christmas movies, then at some point you will notice patterns. In terms of the bingo you have boxes with things like

  • 'Film starts with drone footage of a snowy place',

  • 'Main character has a Christmassy name like Nick, Chris, Mary, Holly or Carol',

  • 'Christmas magic plays a role',

  • 'Hot chocolate is drunk in very Christmassy mugs',

  • 'Main character has an important deadline or can finally get a promotion on Christmas Eve',

  • “Someone says there can never be too many Christmas decorations,”

  • 'Romantically baking and decorating cookies together with icing on someone's cheek',

  • 'Someone works in a superformal business office with white/blue Christmas decorations',

  • 'Main characters meet each other because of 'something' with a car (flat tire, collision, mistake by car rental company)',

  • 'Irritatingly cheerful child of one of the main characters tries to match parent with other main character',

  • that kind of thing.

Characters are also incredibly often dressed in red, green and/or white, and are always bakers or writers or have some other creative profession, rarely are they a data entry coder at a medium-sized municipality.

It is as if there is a large box of standard elements from which the makers always make a random selection, a box full of Christmas best practices. I admit, it's nice to look at, nice and predictable, nice and relaxing, the world and life are hectic enough.

Now you may be thinking: what a waste of time to watch all those movies. But then I would like to refer to the book 'Qualitative Inquiry in Everyday Life' by Svend Brinkmann. Brinkmann quotes sociologist Clinton Sanders:

“One sunny Saturday afternoon I was mindlessly watching my second or third horror film of the day and feeling guilty about wasting my life. Suddenly, the realization struck me that I wouldn't have to feel guilty about watching crummy horror films if I simply started to take notes on them. I could turn a waste of time into work and, once again, begin to feel that I was moving in a potentially productive direction. Although this project eventually resulted in only minimal professional returns […], it did help to get me out of my doldrums and brought home to me the fact that doing qualitative sociology offers the unique opportunity of turning casual interests to account. (Sanders, 1999, p. 43)”

Sanders says he had little use for it professionally, but I think the predictability and manageability in Christmas movies can certainly teach us something professionally. You often also see this desire for predictability and manageability in how we deal with VUCA problems. We would love to copy a best practice, because especially when things are quite complex and uncertain, you can feel lost in the swamp and it is nice if there is a best practice lifebuoy somewhere. We call this 'taming' the problem, which unfortunately does not work. Pretending that the world or your problem is not VUCA, i.e. that it is Stable instead of Volatile, Predictable instead of Uncertain, Simple instead of Complex and/or Clear instead of Ambiguous, won't help you. VUCA problems are usually unique, and you must therefore be very careful about adopting solutions that have worked elsewhere. Hopefully there will be good practices that we can learn from and draw inspiration from, but we will have to figure out for ourselves what works and what does not in the context of our problem. In any case, we will have to be careful not to copy something from a context that we wrongly think is the identical to ours.

This desire for manageability and predictability is not only present in Christmas movies but also in our ideas about Christmas decorations, Christmas dinner and all kinds of other aspects of the holidays. This is how you should decorate your house, this is what you should eat this year, this is how you should dress and behave. The question is why. And who has determined these rules/requirements or expectations? Is there an expert who knows exactly what and how? I don't think so.

Just like the holidays: VUCA problems are not as predictable and manageable as we sometimes think or hope, or as we see in Christmas movies. And if our problems are truly VUCA, then no one is 'the' expert. That may make things more uncertain, but on the other hand it also gives room to explore and learn things, in and from our daily practice. And you can practice with that while watching all those Christmas movies. Good luck!

And of course happy holidays! Have a very VUCA Christmas!

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