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Leading in a VUCA Environment: Lessons from Ski Patrol

17 March 2022


You may have heard of the acronym VUCA which stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. It was first used in the eighties and introduced by the United States military to describe the environment they were operating in during the Cold War.


While the Cold War is a distant memory, the world today could not be more volatile or uncertain and it is very complex for any organisation to navigate through these ambiguous times.


One profession that has been working in a VUCA environment for almost a century is ski patrol. You may have heard of Alta or perhaps even skied there. Alta is located outside of Salt Lake City at the top of Little Cottonwood Canyon in Utah and one of the first ski areas to open in the US and has one of the biggest snowfalls in North America. With that comes challenges of steep terrain, high elevation, unpredictable weather patterns and frequent snow storms.


The Alta Ski Patrol team operates in this mountain environment that is constantly changing, often unpredictable and work with dangerous explosives for controlled avalanche strategies. They face both physical and mental challenges daily. So how do the leaders at Alta excel in these challenging conditions and lead their teams through their VUCA environment?


In this short (6 minutes) documentary by Sweetgrass Productions, the 80-year history of Alta Ski Patrol comes to life capturing the story behind the birthplace of avalanche research in North America. Here are the lessons that we can adopt into the business world.



Understanding complexity

The mountain and the weather are always changing and there are many interconnecting parts and variables. Some information maybe available or can be predicted but the nature of it can be overwhelming to process. The team must be across what’s going on with snow pack daily and how to deal with it. The nature of complexity is the same in the business world. For example, a leader who is operating in a global landscape may have to be across the unique regulatory environments, cultural values, geo-politics and legislations. The leader cannot change the complexity, but they can seek to understand the variables and help the team navigate through it.


Planning and preparedness

For the Alta Ski Patrol Team, they must stay on top of the volatile environment. What’s happening with the snow pack, study it and know how to deal with it. In a volatile landscape, the challenge is unexpected or unstable and maybe of unknown duration but not hard to understand as information is often available. Therefore, information and knowledge are vital to planning and preparation. A leader needs to collect information to understand what is going on, plan for different scenarios and be prepared with an adaptable mindset. Change is possible but not a given.


Teamwork

Teamwork is vital in a challenging environment. The team must rely on each other and it can be a difference between life and death. The ski patrol team run routes in pairs, and they need to have each other’s back and trust one another through sometimes unstable snow conditions, climbing a cliff face or working through a trauma. To excel in a challenging environment, the leader must build a team where there is trust and alignment so that everyone is heading in the same direction, understands their role and trust their team mates.

Purpose

The Alta Ski Patrol team is passionate about what they do, working long hours all winter long often in treacherous conditions and they do it because they love it. As Director of Avalanche Dave Richards states “nobody is getting rich doing this job, they’re getting paid in powder.” When leading teams in challenging environments, you must tap into the passion and purpose of your team and understand the impact. Passion is something we do because we love it. It’s about emotions, motivations and what makes us feel good, an inward impact. Purpose is the reason or the why behind what we do, primarily for others, an outward impact.


The VUCA environment challenges you as a leader to find your own way and anticipate the future. At the very core is about people and tapping into their potential.

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