Skip to Content

Architecture in a VUCA World


“The only constant is change” (Heraclitus of Ephesus (c. 500 BCE)) Even though this statement is 2,500 years old, it still very much applies to our lives today. Change is a constant and, in an IT context, change is faster, more frequent, and less certain than ever before. VUCA strives to provide some principles and approaches to deal with the dizzying pace of change.

The term VUCA was introduced by The US Army War College to describe the more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous multilateral world that emerged at the end of the Cold War. In detail, VUCA is defined as:

  • Volatile – changes can be rapid and unpredictable
  • Uncertain – today is unclear and tomorrow is uncertain
  • Complex – different and interconnected factors can cause chaos and confusion
  • Ambiguous – lack of clarity.

What rang true at the end of the cold war, is today just as valid for the IT industry. Speed is increasing, change is certain and almost immediate, and (without good controls) complexity seems to increase – causing confusion and lack of clarity. And this is just the beginning – the speed of innovation is accelerating at an exponential pace. In their book “The Second Machine Age,” Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee try to pitch where we stand on the pace of innovation spectrum. Are we at the start, in the middle, or at the end? Will the rate of innovation remain stable, decline, or increase? They contend that we are at the very start. Brynjolfsson and McAffe explain that there is still far more to come, noting that the speed of innovation is accelerating faster than we expected – driving even more change, and potentially more uncertainty, that could lead to an increase of complexity and ambiguity.

As architects (see here The New Role of the Architect) this means that we need to:

  1. accept that what we understand today might not be applicable tomorrow
  2. be adaptive and agile to accommodate changes when they appear rather than if they appear
  3. anticipate and embrace change rather than keeping the current status quo
  4. apply agile- and MVP (minimal viable product)-based architecture tools and methods.

For me, “(IT) architecture is an art form; it is the art of designing the “right” solution.” It provides:

  1. structure, where otherwise there would be chaos
  2. alignment, where, without architecture, there would be none
  3. certainty, where, without architecture, there would be none.

When we started to apply an architecture approach to designing solutions (at the end of 1990), we typically followed a waterfall and sequential approach: first a contextual phase, then the conceptual, then logical followed by the physical phase that covered business, information, application, infrastructure, governance, and security. Depending on the size and complexity, we would spend anywhere between weeks to month and sometimes years to produce an enterprise architecture or a domain architecture. Today’s architecture-engagement landscape has changed; large, slow, and top-down enterprise-architecture engagements that produce tons of paper are rare these days. Instead short, fast, and focused engagement are the norm.

“Short, fast, and focused” does not mean quick, dirty, and unplanned – quite the contrary. Architecture in a VUCA world requires:

  • good planning, constant scanning, and the ability to quickly respond to new or changing aspects
  • clear team ethics with clear terms of reference per role as well as clear decision-making
  • a solid plan B and a habit of always planning for the unexpected
  • an optimistic can-do attitude
  • a policy of rewarding people, deploying agile ways of working, collaborating, and integrating
  • a team with the right mix of people who:
    • innovate: display self-awareness and reflection, seek active feedback, and apply new behaviors enterprise architecture and vuca
    • learn: actively seek new knowledge and find new ways of addressing today’s challenges
    • solve: display curiosity and like to experiment and are open to changing and challenging the status quo
    • risk-taking: can tolerate ambiguity and complexity and remain resilient through adversity; positive thinkers
    • collaborate: actively seek engagements and are happy to share views and material; see opportunities
    • have sector focus: understand their sector and can identify and shape business value propositions
    • can present: happy to present and communicate to different stakeholder groups.

Our response to VUCA should not be to ignore the architecture capabilities and approaches that we developed over the past two decades. Instead, we should apply the tools, methods, and frameworks (like TOGAF and IAF) while taking all VUCA factors into consideration.

An architect has the responsibility to provide the structure, alignment, and certainty. Cost, quality, and speed drives most, if not all, of our engagements. An architect understands what is right for the business and focuses on managing the complexity to reduce risk and cost, paving the way for a speedy delivery.

Architecture in a VUCA world means that the architect accepts that what they understand today might not be applicable tomorrow, that change is certain, and that speed has to be balanced with risk – sometimes faster is better than 100% accuracy.

Thanks for reading. 

About the Author: Gunnar Menzel has been an IT professional for over 30 years and is VP and Master Certified Architect for Capgemini’s Cloud Infrastructure Business. His main focus is business – enabling technology transformation and innovation.