The term VUCA—short for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity—originated with the U.S. Army War College to describe how the world was changing in the wake of the Cold War. Since then, its adoption has soared in an effort to describe our ever-evolving global environment.
And if there was ever a year that perfectly encapsulated what VUCA looks like, it was 2020. A global pandemic, calls for social justice, and a presidential election have disrupted not just every industry imaginable, but also the fabric of our daily lives. There’s no denying that we now live in a VUCA world, and despite the wishes of many, our new reality isn’t going to change.
Acknowledging our new VUCA reality also means acknowledging that a new set of skills will be needed to thrive in a world that is always changing. Ask leaders what skills are needed to navigate today’s world and you’ll hear self-direction and adaptability. Many companies that have survived the pandemic point to agility as the key to their success. Traditional hard skills are taking a back seat to “voracious intellectual curiosity and passion for learning.”
What’s amazing is that when you line up all the traits needed to succeed in a VUCA world and overlay them with the traits of people whom we call “Catalysts,” it’s a direct match.
What are Catalysts? These are people who naturally take in lots of information from various sources, see infinite possibilities, create a vision, and can’t stop themselves from taking action to improve everything around them. They have a natural ability to create positive visions of the future in a sea of uncertainty and help drive organizations towards that better future.
Catalysts are innately VUCA ready, which means leaders must activate them in order to survive and thrive in 2021 and beyond. Existing in a state of homeostasis is no longer going to cut it. Organizations can either choose to evolve or be left behind.
The first step in unleashing the Catalysts within your organization is learning how to spot them. There are telltale signs that someone on your team—maybe even you—might be a Catalyst.
In any given situation, Catalysts have incredible vision. They not only can piece together different streams of information and see the new opportunity that’s available, but they can also envision the path that leads there. It’s all very obvious to them, to the point that it’s often frustrating for Catalysts that their team members don’t arrive at the same conclusion when they do.
Here’s another surefire sign of a Catalyst: a desire to move at a breakneck pace. Catalysts are “get stuff done” people who are adept at systems thinking, seeing around corners, and coming up with new approaches—all at a speed that is truly dizzying to watch. They’re like a spinning top that never wobbles.
This leads to another Catalyst hallmark: cycles of burnout. Catalysts are known to run hard at a new challenge and obsess over it, to the point where it becomes their job and their hobby. You can imagine that trail ends in burnout. But because many Catalysts don’t yet understand how they operate, let alone how to properly care for themselves, their burnout is cyclical.
Finally, as a Catalyst moves into action, their default state is to constantly take in feedback and iterate as they go. They’re a shining example of what it means to have a growth mindset.
If any of those traits resonated with you—and especially if all of them did—you might be a Catalyst. If that’s the case, spotting Catalysts on your team will be much easier.
Here’s why: There’s a keen sense of recognition that happens between Catalysts. It’s almost like an imperceptible spark passes between them. If there’s another Catalyst on your team, chances are you already know it—and now you have the language to describe your connection.
If you’re not a Catalyst, here’s how to spot them on your team. First, think of the people who are always suggesting new ideas. They might even be known as “troublemakers” or “disruptors” because they’re constantly bumping up against the status quo. They don’t intend to be disruptive, of course. It just so happens a Catalyst’s natural state of being is seeing how things could be better, so they tend to spend a lot of time exploring around the edges.
Again, this could speak to a lack of self-awareness on their part. If someone doesn’t know they’re a Catalyst, they might not operate with the greatest finesse. There’s also likely a lack of support on the organization’s part, simply because the organization doesn’t know to handle Catalysts.
In order to harness the competitive advantage that your Catalysts offer, awareness must be developed on both sides. The reason we wrote our book was to help Catalysts spot these traits in themselves and develop a greater self-awareness around how they operate. Part of being a Catalyst means recognizing that you must slow down to clarify your vision, bring people along with you (instead of leaving them behind), and better align with the actual strategy.
The other side of the coin is awareness and support from leadership. You can’t activate your Catalysts if you don’t intentionally create an environment suited for them, which happens to resemble the environment in which high-performing teams thrive. Google’s research with Project Aristotle revealed the top dynamic of effective teams is psychological safety.
In other words, Catalysts need to know they can take risks without being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive by leadership. When you activate a Catalyst, chances are good they’ll come back to you with a path forward that is divergent from what the organization is doing right now. This is their specialty: they connect the dots no one else can see.
Yet in our experience, this is the point at which many Catalysts feel attacked. Their ideas are dismissed or the organization refuses to do what needs to be done. At this point, the Catalyst is going to know they can’t safely create positive change there and they’re going to leave. This is why so many Catalysts tend to be nomadic during their careers: they’re seeking impact coupled with psychological safety. When you tell them, “Go out there, explore, maybe even fail—then come back and tell us what you see,” the imperative is on you as the leader to back those words up with your actions.
From the Project Aristotle findings, we can also infer that Catalysts need dependability—where’s the bar and what’s expected of them—as well as clarity. This isn’t clarity the way we normally think of it, with clearly defined KPIs or objectives. Catalysts are doing something brand new, so clarity for them is knowing where the guardrails are. What’s the area they can explore? If they come up with a whole new business model that’s going to cannibalize the company’s existing customer base, is that okay? Or does it need to be more incremental than that?
Catalysts also need meaning, as they’re purpose-driven people who are looking to make the world better. Show them how their work connects with a team or with the organization.
The trickiest piece is the final one: impact. How can you reward and recognize the work of Catalysts? This is tricky because the metrics to measure their success might not yet exist, so some creativity is needed to incentivize, reward, and demonstrate the impact of their efforts.
Executive awareness is so important for Catalysts that they will often follow, from one place to the next, those managers who understand their value and know-how to support them. This fact illustrates the tiny percentage of organizations that know how to handle these wicked change agents. Those that do create a Catalyst friendly workplace will have a massive competitive advantage.
Of course, this competitive advantage only holds so long as the Catalysts on your team avoid catastrophic burnout. Much of this work must come from the Catalysts themselves because it’s wholly within their control to track, sustain, and replenish their energy through proper self-care. Another idea that we’ve found to be effective is a parking lot of ideas that can be pursued at a later date. Catalysts are known for juggling multiple projects at work, two side hustles, a family, and personal self-development, so prioritization is a critical tool to have in their arsenal. As leaders, we can support Catalysts’ ability to maintain their energy by helping them avoid taking on too many projects or projects that are unreasonable for the current organizational environment.
Responsibility also falls with the organization. Right now, we’re helping many leaders establish context-specific Catalyst Programs that fit their culture and their unique challenges. These programs help executives tap their Catalysts to support the ideation, manifestation, and adoption of change initiatives. These programs connect executives to the people that can help them make change initiatives as good and as successful as possible because they are leveraging those that get the change, can optimize it, and can bring others on their local teams along with the organization.
Beyond that, leaders should open the conversation about burnout. Multiple times in 2020, we’ve all said to each other, “It’s been a tough year, hasn’t it?” But that’s where the conversation stops. Now is the time to go deeper than that. Talk with your Catalysts (and really all your employees) about how they’re feeling, what their workload looks like, and take an active part in helping them manage it.
What happens when both leaders and Catalysts demonstrate self-awareness and empathy? The most beautiful kind of alignment. The organization is thinking about the future and doing innovative work, spearheaded by their brightest, most forward-thinking minds.
Because they’re supported and empowered, the Catalysts will have activated not just their fellow changemakers within the organization, but also a broad swath of employees. Their energy acts as an accelerant to higher levels of employee engagement and morale, and that engaged, motivated, happy workforce is working together toward the organization’s goals.
We might be living in a VUCA world, but thankfully, there are those among us who stand ready to lead the charge into our uncertain future. They can see the path nobody else sees, and if you’ll let them, they’re capable of leading your organization where it needs to go.
Tracey Lovejoy and Shannon Lucas, authors of Move Fast. Break Shit. Burn Out.
How to identify and encourage the key traits of innovators The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ Fast Company.