Molly Shrimpton is a research and content writer at Impact.
BANI: The new VUCA?
For decades, VUCA has been used as an acronym to refer to conditions of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. But, whereas VUCA previously described disruptive and exceptional situations, these conditions have now become the norm.
With the acceleration of the climate emergency, the war in Ukraine, the pandemic, the arrival of AI and other technology, and increasing political and financial instability, Jamais Cascio recognised that the world had shifted to a different level of disruption. As a futurist, Cascio is an expert at spotting patterns that repeat across history, but in recent years, he noticed that the patterns were changing, with events and processes playing out in unfamiliar ways:
“We are in an age of chaos, an era that intensely, almost violently, rejects structure. It isn’t simple instability, it’s a reality that seems to actively resist efforts to understand what the hell is going on. This current moment of political mayhem, climate disasters, and global pandemic — and so much more — vividly demonstrates the need for a way of making sense of the world, the need for a new method or tool to see the shapes this age of chaos takes."
In response to this need, Cascio created BANI: a universal framework that stands for brittle, anxious, non-linear, and incomprehensible.
How does BANI serve us?
By outlining the characteristics of our turbulent world, BANI provides much-needed structure and insight into what it is that we are experiencing. Cascio's framework doesn’t offer us a solution to the types of problems it describes, but it does help us to think through how we can respond to them, by highlighting the skills and behaviours that they require. In this sense, BANI is a framework but also a toolkit for the future.
What is BANI?
So what exactly does BANI mean? Here’s a breakdown of each of the four elements of a BANI world, and a description of the skills and behaviours that organisations will need to cultivate in order to survive:
Meaning: Brittleness is used to describe the vulnerability and weakness of our global systems. Something brittle gives the illusion of being solid and strong, but is easily shattered. There is no flexibility or capacity to absorb shock in a brittle system; it simply breaks. Vast, global systems are often designed for maximum efficiency and the relentless pursuit of profit, and are therefore highly interconnected. But this means that they can lack resilience and the smallest problem or change in one area can have a snowball effect, leading to the collapse of the entire system. Cascio refers to the supply chain crisis during the pandemic as an example of brittle chaos.
Response: Fundamentally, brittleness requires resilience. This doesn’t mean preparing for every possible scenario; it means being prepared for unexpected things to happen: having back-up plans in place, creating structures and processes that can flex, developing adaptability as a key competency, and building up resources and capacities so that the organisation can withstand shock. Diversity is also a key element of resilience. Having a workforce who all think and act in the same way will not help when an unexpected or new challenge arises. Instead, creating the conditions for many different kinds of people to thrive and feel belonging will create a collective skills spread of much greater depth and breadth, with much greater chance of being able to respond to big challenges.
Meaning: Anxiety is now a pervasive condition. The constant spate of unexpected, disruptive events has left us in permanent anticipation of the next crisis. We can no longer always trust our governments, institutions, or the information we are presented with. Watershed socio-political events like the pandemic have deepened our sense of stress and insecurity, and our beliefs about reality have been cast into doubt. We know that our decisions can have disproportionate and potentially disastrous impacts, but the speed and scale of disruption means we often have to make decisions quickly and with little information. We exist in a permanent state of anxious, urgent chaos.
Response: This type of anxiety can be dangerously exhausting, and it demands a human-centred approach. Empathy is now a key capacity for leaders, as they must recognise the toll that anxiety can take on their people and help them to maintain balance. It necessitates strong, trusting relationships capable of withstanding strain. And it requires organisations to look inwards and identify any internal processes that may be increasing anxiety, and to prioritise fostering psychologically safe cultures and environments. At the same time, too much fear can often lead to over-analysis, risk-aversion, and even inaction, so building the muscle of leadership action across an entire business is critical.
Meaning: In our globalised world, events are no longer linear, proportionate or, in some cases, even sensical. Tiny actions can have huge consequences that reverberate across multiple scales and geographies, processes spin out of control at the slightest disruption, cause and effect are highly disconnected, and very few things are truly predictable anymore. The climate emergency is a good example of non-linearity: carbon emitted on one side of the world returns in the form of extreme weather on the other; huge moral pressures are placed on tiny, everyday acts such as switching a kettle on; the seasons are now disordered beyond recognition; and there is a bewildering disjunction between the speed at which the global situation is worsening, and the speed at which decision-makers are addressing it.
Response: Non-linearity means life is full of shocks, strangeness and surprises, and this requires adaptability, open-mindedness and agility. Agility is a key differentiator for organisations in BANI times, and it is a muscle that is developed by those who can continuously learn on the fly, who can look ahead and scan situations, who can maintain acute awareness of self and others, and who can hold their own agenda and beliefs lightly.
Meaning: In a non-linear world, things aren't just ambiguous – they're completely incomprehensible. The problems we face now are so complex and fast-moving that we can no longer hope to have answers for them. Often, the more we try to make sense of a problem, the less it seems we understand it. And throwing more and more data and information at it can sometimes only make us feel more overwhelmed. On top of this, behaviour and decision-making from AI technologies and even some humans in positions of power can feel difficult to rationalise or understand. Incomprehensible defines the type of senseless, volatile chaos we experience now.
Response: Incomprehensible worlds require leaders to look inwards as well as outwards, and trust intuition and instinct as well as rationale. A leader’s ability to admit that they don’t have the answers and to ask others for help is also vital. The kinds of incomprehensible challenges – often called adaptive challenges – we now face don’t require experts, they require open-minded leaders who are capable of adapting, showing vulnerability, learning with and from others, and making decisions with less than 100% of the information.
‘The future keeps coming’
So, is BANI just the latest piece of catchy business jargon? Or is it a vital framework for helping organisations to navigate the future? The answer to this depends on how it is used.
As a description of global chaos in all its brittleness, anxiety, non-linearity, and incomprehensibility, BANI provides much-needed structure, equipping us with a language through which to make some sense of what is happening around us. But where BANI’s value really lies is in its capacity to help organisations change so that they have the best chance of long-term success.
BANI doesn’t claim to nail down what the problems are and provide us with simple answers or ways forward (indeed, the key characteristic of a BANI world is that the problems aren’t clear-cut, and that answers most definitely aren’t the point). Instead, the framework helps organisations and leaders understand the types of problems and experiences a BANI world brings, and crucially, the capacities, behaviours, and skills that will be required to meet them.
The organisations that will survive and flourish in this future are those that embody the qualities the BANI framework points us towards. These organisations are agile, adaptable, and resilient, with thriving cultures of learning and collaboration. Instead of collecting experts, they grow people who are open-minded, diverse, innovative, and highly aware. These organisations embrace a human-centred approach, prioritising empathy, listening skills and trust.
As Cascio writes, ‘the future keeps coming’ – whether we are ready for it or not. The value of the BANI framework is the opportunity it provides us with to get future-fit.