Standing Up to the
VUCA Monster

Standing Up to the VUCA Monster

A lesson in complexity, critical thinking and not holding onto anything too tightly.

by Brandy Agerbeck, 
Written March 10, 2020

On March 16, I was supposed to travel to Europe for a month of teaching. A tiny, but mighty virus called COVID-19 had other plans. 

After a week of tumult, I decided this morning (March 10) to postpone the whole trip. Next came the daunting challenge of clearly communicating the changes. 

I had to sort my own thoughts first. I practiced what my whole business is built on and "made drawing my best thinking tool."

Here's what I drew over the course of the next few hours:

Why did I make a drawing?

  • It helps me pull the swarm of thoughts out of my head. Making them tangible helps reduce my overwhelm.
  • I'm able to fit a whole lot on one page and figure out how the pieces fit together. 
  • Look, I love the thinky parts, but it also helps me process my emotions.
  • And as I make a drawing, I notice the physical sensations in my body, the surest way to tune into my intuition.

It definitely helped me get grounded and better understand why the decision was so darn hard to make, and explained the ease I felt after deciding.


"Hey Brandy, why does this drawing say VUCA, and not COVID-19?"

Good question, disembodied question-asker! 

COVID-19 is the current pandemic-scale manifestation of the VUCA world we live in. And have lived in for a long time. And our world is getting VUCA-er.


The acronym VUCA arose in the US Army War College in the late-eighties, to describe the challenges of planning, leading and strategizing in the post-Cold War world. 

I first heard of it on a graphic facilitation project, where I make these kind of drawings, but they are about 4 feet tall and 6-8 feet wide and drawn live to capture and facilitate a group conversations and presentations.

That was right around 2000. 

VUCA described the difficulties of convening a leadership retreat or strategic visioning session when the problem you're there to solve is unclear. Or unknowable. Or conditions may change wildly during implementation.

Sure, leaders are leaders because they see the big picture. They use hindsight to tap into their foresight. They tackle the messy, complex problems. 

But VUCA? VUCA makes everything faster, messier, fuzzier. 

While I'm doing fewer graphic facilitation projects these days (focusing on teaching you and your teams to tackle problems with visual thinking), nearly every event I am visual supporting now references VUCA. 

It's not something to anticipate. 

It is now ever present.

Here's more about what each letter stands for, how it applies to the COVID-19 pandemic, why I turn to visual thinking to reckon with these gnarly monsters as an individual, and why graphic facilitation supports group's reckon with their collective gnarly monsters:

Aspects of Volatility
The ever-increasing rate of change. Instability of building for one set of parameters, and then the parameters change. Not just that change is happening more quickly, but also the amount of change is bigger.

Ways to Mitigate Volatility
Agility and speed of responsiveness. Clear communications about changes. A long-term approach that accounts for short-term turbulence. Collecting data to measure metrics over time.

Volatility and COVID-19
Every “hockey stick” line on a chart of cases. How the markets are plummeting in response to the pandemic. How much your ability to work, parent, travel, shop can completely change in 24 hours.

“This week feels like a month.” “I’m not sure what end is up right now.”

Visual Thinking and Volatility
Drawing out your situation won’t stop or slow down change, but it can help you map out and better understand the changes happening and the contributing factors. Can help validation feelings of unease by making them tangible.

Graphic Facilitation and Volatility
The real-time nature of graphic facilitation makes it superb for capturing a moment in time, a conversation. It is not necessarily the best tool for capturing moments over time, unless it’s through a series of meetings. I believe data visualization is a better match. GF can support a conversation about volatility. Mapping the factors that create volatility around a group’s specific topic.

Aspects of Uncertainty
Lack of predictability. Old models or patterns don’t apply. No clear cause and effect. Overwhelm and paralysis from too many unknowns. Not even sure what you’re solving for.

Ways to Mitigate Uncertainty
A “let’s try, and see what happens” attitude. Testing and observing. Willingness to be in the “fuzzy front end” or “messy middle” as part of the process.

Uncertainty and COVID-19
Not knowing what circumstance are you solving for. Lack of testing. Stockpiling supplies to accommodate an unknown future.
“What if I have to work from home?” “What if my children’s school closes?” “What if I or a loved one gets sick?”

Visual Thinking and Uncertainty
Much like volatility, you can make your uncertainties tangible on a piece of paper by drawing them out. This can help you recognize the unknowns, better plan for seeking more information. Again, it makes good therapy to process your thoughts and feelings.

One caveat: Don’t let the tangibility of visual thinking fool you. Making something that is uncertain visual and concrete, does not make it certain. It simply helps you recognize an uncertainty. I am a big fan of using a lighter or gray color to write out uncertainties. Or connecting an uncertain idea to another with a dotted line. Solid lines or dark ink signals that an item is more decisive and known.

Graphic Facilitation and Uncertainty
My strongest uncertainty-wrangling experience as a graphic facilitator, was support Global Business Network in their scenario planning methodology. The consultants work with their clients to determine the right two axis that led to the future’s uncertainty that that group was there to plan for.
This created a two-by-two matrix containing four possible futures. It was a pleasure to support the process and to see the group work through solving for four possible futures, not just struggling with the future’s unknowability.

Aspects of Complexity
Many parts, many variables. Interdependencies. Connectedness. Multiple forces at work at once. Simplification is not the answer, because it doesn’t reflect the whole picture.

Ways to Mitigate Complexity
Helped by critical thinking and organization. Willingness to work on a complex picture, and not throw out inconvenient parts. Consulting different groups, experts, or specialists that hold part of the whole. Bringing together these different perspectives and bodies of knowledge to illuminate the corners of complexity.

Complexity and COVID-19
Trying to respond to the personal risks and the risks to those around you. Our connectedness. How systems will support or fail us if we need them. Sheer amount of information to process.

“I may be fine, but I don't want to put my friend at risk." 

"I need to take public transit to work, but if I am exposed, I can’t handle the quarantine period and the loss of income. If I lose work, I jeopardize my family.”

“Oh, people are overreacting. What’s the problem?”

Visual Thinking and Complexity
THIS is where visual thinking SHINES! As I said in my experience above, I love how much information you can fit within one image. I’ll pull out a Brandy-ism – When’s the last time you solved a problem in a straight line?

Oversimplification wants a short path and a straight line. Text is far more linear. I could show the complexities of VUCA and it’s sidekick COVID-19 in the drawing in ways I cannot in this series of paragraphs below it. It’s an overused cliché, but this is why a “picture is worth a 1000 words.”

This piece is roughly 4000 words long and it only covers a portion of the drawing.

I couldn’t get to the same level of understanding this morning with a list. I could write out my tasks for the near future, but I couldn’t process where I was presently, and get more present and feel grounded without drawing.
Creating sets of consistent visual choices allow many layers of information to sit side-by-side. For instance, notice how all four of these letters are drawn in the same way. It helps you spell “VUCA” as you read the image. You can understand this set as distinctly different than the 5 types of health all drawing consistently as white block letters, shining yellow, the same as their parent label of “HEALTH.”

Graphic Facilitation and Complexity
This is absolutely my favorite part of my work in the role of professional graphic facilitator. Getting to start with a blank sheet of paper and listen for the shape of a conversation. THE BEST. But there’s tons and tons of agenda items and time in meetings that doesn’t allow for open ended conversation. What I capture in a rapid-fire brainstorming session looks radically different than what emerges in an open-ended discussion of a complex topic. Personally, it’s opportunity to find patterns, make connections and synthesize your work that I love most. And it’s when you’re getting the most value from hiring me.

HUGE CAVEAT: A small portion of people in our field transcends strict capture, going into spatial organization and elements of synthesis. You can’t hire just anyone with this job title and get the kind of work you see above. It's why my fee is high. It’s why I write and teach. Some of this level of skill is knowledge and practice, some of it is the ability to do this kind of turbo fast thinking in real-time. And a mind for pattern-finding, inference, and transferring previous experience are huge helps as well.

Even if you are of you are working with someone who is in capture-only mode, you will still create a sense of shared understanding that’s always present in graphic facilitation. The qualitative change in a meeting that comes from seeing all the individual voices on the same page.

Aspects of Ambiguity
Lack of clarity. Missing information or shortage of reliable resources to make situation clearer. New territory and no precedence to rely on.

Ways to Mitigate Ambiguity
Helped by vetting sources, and up-to-date communication of changes (both changes away from and changes towards) to try to keep picture clearer.

Ambiguity and COVID-19
Challenge of finding reliable sources of information. And the volatile rate of change amplifies this. “What am I supposed to do?” “What am I supposed to do now?”

The mild symptoms in most people, and lack of testing. “They don’t look sick.”

No previous experience. “Isn’t this just the flu? What’s the big deal?”

Visual Thinking and Ambiguity
There’s much overlap here with uncertainty. Getting a handle on what’s unclear by getting it down on paper helps relieve overwhelm. Much like the caveat above, don’t let the tangibility trick you into thinking the ambiguous is less so. Yet, making what’s ambiguous visible can lead to new insights, or paths to explore.

Graphic Facilitation and Ambiguity
You can easily enter a meeting thinking, “Well, I know what we need to do.” And you like hold a fraction of the answer. Or you go into an event fearing it’ll be a waste of time, because there’s so much unknown. Every individual in a group comes in with their own uncertainties and ambiguities around the topic at hand. Having a graphic facilitator working with their “outsider ears” supports the group by being focused and committed to capturing the group’s concerns. While each person may have different concerns, what the GF writes and draws reveal how much people have in common and fleshes out a wider perspective. Especially when incorporating a level-set at the beginning of a meeting, or letting each person “get their cards on the table,” leads to faster alignment and buy-in. Groups become more focused and collaborative when they see how much their concerns overlap.

Let's pause this article for a handwashing PSA. If you look in the lower right hand corner of the main VUCA drawing, you'll see some handwashing steps. This is the sequence and kinesthetic pattern I made up to help me remember. Bonus: it is easily 20+ seconds long. 


If you want both videos in one, it's over here

This demo with latex gloves and ink demonstrates just how ineffective "normal" handwashing is, and how it pays to do it properly.

I found this on david gravelle's YouTube channel. Looks to be a copy - happy to credit the originator if you give me the source. 

Now, with clean hands, let's get back to our business...

Let's get into some of this COVID-19-specific Complexity, shall we? 

The world is volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. That won't change.

And COVID-19 is a stellar example of a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous problem pandemic.

Massive scale. 

Folks have been exhausted for a long time. They've already been navigating VUCA's murky waters. And we don't have the best tools to do so. Wanting to turn back the clock is a fantastic symptom of wanting to rewind to simpler times. 

Simplicity does not solve complexity.

Beating each other with the Simplicity Stick on social media is a Punch and Judy show. 

Look how well that ended. 

Trying to eliminate complexity with the Simplicity Steamroller doesn't work either. Cancel culture drives the Simplicity Steamroller. 

You can absolutely chose not support an individual for their actions. AND that doesn't change that person's complexity. 

And there's plenty of stick-swinging and steamrolling in response to COVID-19: 

"OMG, X is overreacting." 

"Why are we focused on COVID-19, where there are all these other problems?"

"Plenty of people die of the flu, so what."


Neither stick-swinging or steamrolling will help us fight this pandemic. In fact, they slow us down and cause more problems.

Flattening the Curve is a complex response to a complex problem. It suggests a collection of actions to try to mitigate the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity of the situation. 

Let me illustrate the complexity with two examples: 

  1. Interdependent aspects of health
  2. The multitude of factors in making decisions for ourselves, our families, our communities, our nations, our species right now.

Simplicity wants this to be as simple as "am I sick or not?" Or one notch farther, "am I at risk or not?"

You may not have COVID-19 or be physically sick at this moment, but there's so many factors to one's well-being right now:

How do I feel?
Do I feel supported?
Do I feel understood?
How un/stable do I feel?
How am I handling stress?
How do I pay my bills?
Who is depending on me? 
How do I keep my household safe and stable? 

What do I think?
What do I know?
What Information do I trust?
What decisions do I need to make?
How can I be certain?
How do I feel?
What are my health risks?
How un/stable do I feel?
How am I handling stress?
Who do I care for? 
Who do I put at risk? 
How strong are my social bonds?


There's already a massive detriment to many (most?) people right now in all these aspects of health. 

Now (being March 12) there will be widespread repercussions on social, emotional, and mental health with most sports organizations shutting down their seasons. 

Same with EVERYONE in education, as social distancing not only makes learning and teaching far harded, but also fractures community. 

And because that lil' virus contains so many known unknowns and unknown unknowns, we're all sacrificing so much (whether by choice or by mandate) to flatten the curve for the greater public good. 

And it sucks.

It hurts.

You may be feeling competing feelings all at once. 

You may be pissed or disappointed that your vacation was postponed at the same time you're thankful many folks' action is helping an at-risk loved one be exposed to less risk. 


Suggested Exercise
Aspects of Health Personal Check-In

If you're feeling overwhelmed or stressed because of COVID-19, or something else, take some time to check in with yourself on these 5 factors of health. 

Of course, I'm going to invite you to draw. Not necessarily drawing pictures, but let yourself use shapes, lines arrows alongside text to express yourself and see how specific items connect or relate to each other.

If you prefer writing, go for it. This is entirely for you. 

Note: If I'm missing a factor for you, add it!

For example, you may separate sexual health, spiritual health, or some other kind of health as a major factor is your well-being. Don't let my perspective in the drawing I made for myself constrict you. 

⬜ Take inventory of how you're feeling in each aspect. 

⬜ Notice the interdependence between these areas.

⬜ Where you are noticing positives, celebrate them! Think about how you can continue those positives. 

⬜ If you're seeing a gap or a need, note it. If you can think of a remedy, note that too. If not, keep going. You don't need to solve that now. 

⬜ If you're seeing conflict or tensions between different points note it. 

⬜ What is causing you stress? How does that stress show up? Do you have ways of coping with that stress?

⬜ All through the process, notice how you feel in your body at different moments. Tense? Relieved? A rush from a new "AHA"? These sensations are useful information. 

⬜ Making your innermost thoughts and feelings tangible can make you feel vulnerable. That's okay. Notice. And if this drawing or writing is too sensitive to have around, destroy it. This time checking in with yourself is valuable in itself.

⬜ You may want to share what you gleaned from this with someone else. You may or may not want to share the drawing or writing itself. The power it has for you often does not translate to others. Think of it as something that helped you in your process, but may not be a communicative product. 

⬜ Note if there are any specfic actions you want to take from this check-in. Where action is not possible, acknowledge that too. 


If this was useful, keep it in mind for future use. This is replicable and adaptable. 


Let's switch gears. 

Let's dial into all the complex factors that go into decision making right now.

I sat down and tried to tackle the complexity of COVID-19. 

Here's what I came up with. 

It is incomplete. 

What I was trying to do here is map out the interdependent factors in keeping ourselves, our families, our communities and the public at large safe. And if someone is sick, what treatment they may need. 

Again, this is incomplete, but I think this broad brushstroke covers a lot. 

The pink words -- Work, Leisure, and Community -- are big categories of life not as central to our physical health, but absolutely parts of our livelihoods. 

Let's map my specific decision to me made to this diagram. 

What should I do about my impending teaching tour in Europe given COVID-19?

Initially, I was trying to make a me decision about my month-long teaching tour. Hunkered down in my make-it-happen mode, concerned for my business's stability and my financial health, I thought, “I’ve got a strong immune system. Our gatherings are small. As long as I can get on my plane, we’re good.”

Also a hearty portion of "I can't let anyone down."


When I evaluated it, my own map was pretty simple. See the green parts on the complexity map.

No kids, no parents. A supportive, healthy spouse, and a couple of cats.

Possible quarantine?

Already practicing social isolation as a worried small business owner constantly working, and I am married to a cook who loves a full fridge and pantry. 

Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy. 

I’m extremely thankful for treasured friends and colleagues Christina Hemmingsen in Denmark and  Raquel Benmergui in Finland. They were wrestling similar decisions with workshops in Amsterdam next week.

They also existed outside my tidy little bubble. 

They shared their governments' communications. Far more direct and unmuddled. Unsurprising.

Raquel and Christina shared what they were experiencing and hearing. They ask The Very Best Questions.

We talked through loads of What Ifs. The kinds of What Ifs that help us navigate uncertainty and ambiguity.

With firm and loving friendship, they gently shook me out of make-it-happen mode.

The ambiguity was coming into clearer focus. This is a we decision.

I needed to ask my upcoming participants. I’m extremely thankful for the London lab partners who were still enthusiastic to make the Lab happen, but shared crucial reasons why it should not happen in April.

To the right, you can see how the green areas expanded when integrating their concerns.

I needed to hear more voices from more parts of the world to help make the decision. Once I did, it was clear what the right decision was. 

While individual, personally healthy people may decry hype and overreaction, it's the complexity of the entire situation that makes these cancellations, closures, postponements vital to our community health and public health.

Finally, I conferred with my esteemed partners at Neuland, especially Verena Hanke-Neuland. We decided that while we were still in pretty normal times in Chicago and in Eichenzell, Germany, it was best to adapt to those facing more risks.

So, I woke up on March 10th to that confirmation from Verena and the decision to postpone the whole trip.

While the preceding days were full of VUCA, once I made the decision I felt at ease.

But I also didn't know how to communicate the decision.

That's why I made that drawing.

And it helped.


A few hours later, my beloved alma mater, Grinnell College, sent out community-wide news announcing:

"Our goals are first and foremost to keep our students, faculty, and staff safe including those most vulnerable in this situation; to support course completion and graduation; and to not overburden students who are in financial need. We are striving to meet our social responsibility and serve the common good." source


This meant sending students home for the rest of the semester after Spring Break begins. And making sure those who needed exceptions or financial support would get it. 

Because we're Grinnellians, there was an immediate flurries of responses (and within 24 hours a special alumni-requested fund created to support the specific demands of these students face at this time).

Comments arose about the low risk the students were at, and wasn't sending them home just going to put them at a higher risk?

That's only one tiny corner of the Grinnell's unique map. 

Thinking of the students' disruption and disappointment is heartbreaking. But part of Grinnell's complexity map is the older town residents and a local hospital that could not handle an outbreak. 

Again, the answer is more complex than the generally low-risk student population at the center of the college's decision.

Suggested Exercise
Complexity Map

I'm making the blank version of the Complexity Map the second page in the PDF below. 

Highlight what areas are most central to your situation or decision. Add in whatever is missing.

If it is useful to you, I am glad.

Funny thing, given the complexity of all this, it took three days from starting the first drawing to finishing this page. 

In that subsequent time, the decision of the Danish participants was made for them with a country-wide, two-week lock down. Later, America's travel restrictions would have made the decision for me. 

There was loads of uncertainty and ambiguity. Those involved directly and the waves of impact out from them was complex. And in the course of one week, the situation was so volatile, that circumstances completely changed. 

And THAT is VUCA. 


Want a printable PDF of Brandy's drawing?
Click the button to download the file. 

Yes, please!

Click on any of these behind-the-scenes image to hop to the blog post describing process. 

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Visual thinking pioneer Brandy Agerbeck writes, speaks and teaches on the power of drawing as your best thinking tool. She's got plenty of resources for every type, stripe, and experience level of visual thinker at

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