In this VUCA world, are farmers ever in control?

March 23rd, 2021 post featured image

“You cannot control what happens to you, but you can control your attitude toward what happens to you, and in that, you will be mastering change rather than allowing it to master you.” – Brian Tracy

We said it before and we’ll say it again: when it comes to dealing with unpredictability, farmers are hands-down some of the most experienced and adept folks around. Whether they’re contending with weather and markets or navigating shifting political, economic, societal and environmental regulations and imperatives,[1] being a farmer means problem-solving with agility and creativity, day after day.

Farming is synonymous with risk-taking. It’s a profession characterized by volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – VUCA, for short.

2020 left no room for doubt: we are living in a VUCA world. For the agriculture industry, it’s never been clearer that “supply chains are an interconnected web of dependencies comprising industrial, chemical, and logistics specialists working together to put food on the table.”[2] When one area experiences delays, it affects the entire operation.

Boiled down, the acronym represents the unknown and the unpredictable. Because none of us can see the future, some folks might turn around and say such uncertainty is impossible to anticipate or plan for.  

A Harvard Business Review article from 2014 counters this perspective by saying VUCA is a preparedness framework – a tool used to plan for and mitigate volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. We may be at the mercy of the unknown but that doesn’t mean we’re powerless against it.

The article characterizes and categorizes each element of VUCA according to how understandable the event is and how predictable the results of your reactions are. For examples of each and recommendations for how to approach them, click here.

Volatility: The challenge is unexpected or unstable and may be of unknown duration, but it’s not necessarily hard to understand; knowledge about it is often available.

Uncertainty: Despite a lack of other information, the event’s basic cause and effect are known. Change is possible but not a given.

Complexity: The situation has many interconnected parts and variables. Some information is available or can be predicted, but the volume or nature of it can be overwhelming to process.

Ambiguity: Causal relationships are completely unclear. No precedents exist; you face “unknown unknowns.”

Farmers are excellent at dealing with VUCA – rolling with the punches and innovating in the face of inclement weather or industry disturbances. But it can be easy to underestimate the disruption risk of not having an adequate succession plan, especially since it often doesn’t seem like an urgent problem until all of a sudden, it is.

Farming is an intimate business. Coworkers are family members, and the office may very well double as the dining room. This interconnectedness between personal and professional ups the risk ante; family relationships and years, if not generations, of labour are at stake if the farm fails to transition.

Without frequent, transparent conversations about succession, involved parties may make assumptions about the farm which do more harm than good. Assuming the farm will support the next generation AND fund the current generation’s retirement, for example, can have devastating consequences without proper planning.

To add to Brian Tracy’s wisdom at the top of this article, we think handling the unknown with grace also involves identifying the things we can control and then taking steps to do so. With all the unpredictability farmers are practically guaranteed to face in their work, it seems counterproductive to leave things, especially big things, to chance. Extreme weather or livestock disease certainly wouldn’t be, and neither should farm succession.

For help with mitigating risk and taking control of your farm succession plan, connect with us.