An indirect approach helps project practioners navigate complexity with more chance of success than direct approaches that too often fail to cope with uncertain and volatile environments.
[This article is inspired by the book: “The High-Impact PMO, How Can Agile PMO Deliver Value in a Complex World” I have published in October and that is available on Amazon]
The Direct Approach – Goals, Ways, Means
In the direct approach, one designs an ideal desired model. The engineer designs a product, the change agent defines a new business model, and the economist sets a growth target. This model becomes the goal to achieve. Those who set this goal launch a project. Their will make them decide on and commit to a particular course of action to impose their model to the existing reality. They define a direct approach based on goals, ways, and means.
Mencius, or Mengzi (372 – 289 BC), one of the most famous Confucian philosophers, warns us about direct approaches. VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) is a characteristic of life. Most circumstances are unpredictable. Therefore developing upstream a detailed project roadmap forecasting both the outputs and the outcomes of a project can only be sooner or later fatally flawed.
They, who assist their corn to grow long, pull out their corn.
What they do is not only of no benefit to the nature, but it also injures it.
Typical examples of direct approaches abound. Among them, the Empire State Building is one of the most famous.
The Empire State Building project delivered a successful output and a late outcome
Its sponsors, General Motors executive John J. Raskob and former New York Governor Al Smith, set two objectives. The building had to be taller than their competitor Chrysler’s building. And it had to be finished before May 1, 1931. The building (the project “output”) was not only completed on time and under budget, but it was the tallest building in the world when it was officially opened on May 1, 1931. Contractors Starrett Brothers and Eken used an assembly line process to erect the new skyscraper in a brisk 410 days, finishing ahead of schedule. The lower than planned wages and material costs due to the Great Depression decreased the final budget. Yet less than 25 percent of the building’s retail space was occupied upon its opening in 1931, earning it the nickname the “Empty State Building.” The owner bankruptcy has been avoided thanks to the enormous success of the building’s belvedere. The Empire State Building only became profitable in 1950 (the “outcome”).
The question remains to know whether what is successful on a technical point of view is also true on a social or economical point of view. The application of well defined methods and of processes is becoming less effective when you get higher in the hierarchy of things or when you become more strategic. In those situations, you face more living and social forces than physical or mechanistic phenomena. We can only draw uneasy comfort from this: as the world becomes more complex, traditional theories explain less. On a grand scale, the increasing complexity of foreign affairs cuts against the comfortable assumptions of classical approaches. Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google said that:
we can tell you with 100 percent certainty that if you have a business plan, it is wrong. MBA-style business plans, no matter how well conceived and thought out are always flawed in some important way. Faithfully following that plan will result in what entrepreneur Eric Ries calls achieving failure… It is fine to have a plan, but understand that it will change as you progress and discover new things…
The Indirect Approach – Situations, Potentials, Circumstances
A solution for navigating in complexity is the indirect approach. There one sees the environment as a continuously evolving process that should not be blocked by our action but that should be facilitated towards the direction we desire. Instead of defining a model, an indirect approach focuses your attention on the course of things in order to make you take advantage of their evolution. Your role consists to help the situation evolve favorably.
Mencius explains that you have three key dimensions to consider. The first one is the situation in which you are positioned. The second one is the potential this situation offers you. And the third one is made of the circumstances that make the potential become ripe.
Your success relies primarily on the potential. Evaluating a situation (and therefore developing business intelligence) becomes more important than planning what needs to be done. Sensing the potential requires also more talent than tools and techniques. This is the domain of experienced project management practitioners. Instead of willing to impose a model and a plan to the world, they let them be carried by the course of things and by the circumstances they come across.
Being patient and waiting the opportune time is a key success factor. If the situation is not favorable, the wise sits back. He waits until the situation becomes favorable. He yields to time.
Letting the process go, and at the same time, not letting it go without acting is the difficult but rewarding way of an indirect approach. You must facilitate the transformation by cultivating the conditions of smooth and favorable growth. It means both facilitating the process and eliminting the roadblocks and the constraints.
The Three Princes of Serendip
Real life stories bring many great examples of indirect approaches that succeeded. However, one of my preferred stories is the following. In the Far East, a long time ago, there was a King named Giaffer. He had three sons whose education he entrusted to the best tutors. Once he found that they were excellent in virtue, sciences, and wisdom, he invited one after the other to accept to reign at his place as the King. But each one refused at his turn with modesty the crown. Thus the King sent them to find the magic formula of the death of the dragons.
Follow a long series of fortuitous events that they successfully used to show their wisdom, compassion, and support to others.
A first encounter brings them a part of the formula they were seeking. A second encounter makes them describe with incredible precisions a camel a merchant had lost. The camel, they say, is lame, blind in one eye, missing a tooth, carrying a pregnant woman, and bearing honey on one side and butter on the other. The Persian King Bahram sentenced them first to death, before pardoning them and inviting them to stay with him a few days once the camel was retrieved. This invitation makes them aware that the King’s Vizier planned to soon poison him. While the King decides to cut off the Vizier’s head, the three princes recommend that the Vizier be rather exiled in a country where his proper son had already been exiled. In recognition, the Vizier gives them another important piece of information concerning the magic formula they seek. The story ends well. The princes understand that they did not learn more with the formula than what they already knew. Instead, tears of compassion they shed for poor villagers they met killed the dragons forever. The story ends with the King Bahram thanking them for the splendor and serenity they brought to his kingdom and their return home to succeed their father.
This story of three princes who are regularly making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things that they were not in quest of is an ancient Persian fairy tale, The Three Princes of Serendip attributed to the Sufi poet Amir Khusrow (1253-1325). The princes live successive events that are fortuitous. They show each time a wonderful capacity to take profit of the events for the good of others. This capacity called serendipity is also an indirect approach.
A Few Key Takeways
If project outputs and outcomes are only tangible and material, the direct approach may be the most effective one. However, more intangible and social environments render the direct approach very uncertain and unpredictable and make indirect approaches preferable. So here are a few selected characteristics of each approach.
- While a direct approach emphasizes the ends (and therefore the ways and the means to get to these ends), the indirect approach focuses on a potential (and therefore on a situation and the circumstances that will make the potential become favorable at a certain time).
- A direct approach favors short term results and may be atemporal (it is independent of or unaffected by time). Conversely, an indirect approach is rather intertemporal (it covers different period of time) and it seeks to secure further advantages.
- In the direct approach, you impose your action and by imposition of your will and rhythm you do not respect the spontaneous process of development and transformation you want for your environment. You do not let the effect mature. In the indirect approach, you stay aside of the playfield and you assist without action to the spontaneous development of the things. However, as Mencius explains:
It does not mean one must be without action.
It means that one must weed, hoe, and water the corn.
We must wait until it is ripe.
 Mencius II, A, 2.