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Why systems must explore the unknown to survive in VUCA environments

Jan Bartscht (Independent researcher, London, UK)


ISSN: 0368-492X

Article publication date: 2 February 2015




The purpose of this paper is to explain why systems must make a habit of exploring the unknown and identify the complex and chaotic dynamics that drive modern volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) situations.


Eight faculty staff from the “Thunderbird School of Global Management” were interviewed around the subject of “what does it take to be a successful 21st Century leader?” in spring 2012. These interviews were then analysed using Ricoeur’s Hermeneutic methodology which resulted in three behaviours being identified. Then, according to Ricoeur’s methodology, deep interpretation of the results took place to understand these research results through the lens of complexity science.


Systems must make a habit of actively exploring the unknown to discover the patterns that cause complex chaos. This enables them to improve their capacity to generate useful situational understanding in VUCA environments and better position themselves in the fitness landscape. Finally, the idea of “epistemic stance” is introduced as an important way of managing identity and improving innovation.

Research limitations/implications

The implication is that modern systems, e.g. leaders and organisations, must make a habit of exploring the unknown to find and understand the dynamics that drive the complex world if they are to build effective situational understanding of VUCA environments.

Practical implications

If systems wish to innovate, they must ensure they have the appropriate epistemic stance in place so that they can change their identity to allow innovation to transform the identity.


Whilst the behaviour of exploration is already known, this research focuses that behaviour on specifically identifying the patterns that cause complex chaos. Further, the epistemic stance is introduced which plays an important role in regulating how open a system is to changing its identity and therefore adapting and innovating.



Bartscht, J. (2015), "Why systems must explore the unknown to survive in VUCA environments", Kybernetes, Vol. 44 No. 2, pp. 253-270.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2015, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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