an indirect strategy

An Indirect Strategy Fits Best In A Complex World

An indirect strategy fits best in a complex world. This is is something “people with white beards” have learned during the course of their career. Conversely, they also learned that direct strategies mostly fail in complex environments.

There is a book that you may want to read: it is the “Treatise of efficacy” by François Jullien. This book is inspiring me, here is why.

Complexity doesn’t like direct approaches.

The direct strategy says: “let us define a goal, identify means, and select ways to achieve the goal.”

The direct approach imposes the will of an architect, of a politician, or of a particular leader.

The Babel tower is a symbol of this approach. The tower was more than a mere technical project. It was a “social project” with stakeholders who had different views on the project to say the least. You all know how it ended up.

An indirect strategy fits best in a complex world

Consequently, there is a question for project managers: « Can one continue to operate as a technician when it comes to determining social behaviors? »

In a VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) world, our actions cannot cover its contingencies with general deterministic laws. The world may indeed not be fully receptive to the order that we wish it to have.

The traditional direct approach is subject to the contingencies of complexity. The more a project deals with social environments, the less a direct approach is going to work. The more a project moves up into the hierarchy, where politics play a role, the less the direct approach works.

The indirect strategy says: “let us understand the situation, detect a potential, and take profit of opportunities to benefit from the potential.”

Indirectness requires sensibility, agility, and adaptability.

Potential consists in sensing the circumstances with a view to profiting from them.

When it is the case, circumstances are no longer something unpredictable and threatening to ruin any plan imposed upon them.

Instead, thanks precisely to their variability, circumstances can progressively be turned to advantage by the propensity emanating from the situation.

It is key to notice that, instead of imposing your will, you recognize a situation as a whole and you build your approach with an intertemporal mindset. You invest now for a future that is not yet determined.

As a symbol of this approach, you see an ear of corn. You weed, hoe, and water the corn. Then it is best to wait for the moment of ripening.

Indirectness also requires humility, patience, and equilibrium

It requires humility (you do not impose your will), acceptance of an ecosystem on which you have no power, and it requires that time may be longer.

A direct strategy may be glorious, and indirect strategy may (or should) be invisible to others.

But the direct one loses in complex environments, the indirect one may win.

Yet, a mix of directness and directness is an excellent approach to success.

In the domain of project management, using “roundness” early on is a winning strategy. Most project indeed show characteristics of complexity. As a result, an indirect strategy fits best in a complex world.

Indirectness allows project stakeholders to learn and adjust to the situation with flexibility not possible with “square” approaches.

The approach becomes direct or “square” when the indirect or “round” approach produces results that look ripe enough, that means, when they are secured enough, if we can talk of secured enough results, to make them “square.” 

So here is a table that shows some of the key characteristics of both approaches:

And as a conclusion, read what François Jullien explains in his book “The treatise of efficacy”:

“One should be round before a situation actualizes itself and square once it has become actualized”.

To Your Continued Success!


The article is inspired from the 5th version of my book The High-Impact PMO, Why and how agile project management officers deliver value in a complex world” that you can buy on Amazon

Or read my most successful articles here:

The Indirect Route Is Best in a Complex World

Social organizations are complex adaptive systems. And the nonlinear nature of these complex systems make them inherently indirect. Studying and learning approaches described by historical philosophers like Aristotle and Mencius, and strategists like Clausewitz and Sun Tzu are of great interest for Project Managers and PMOs. This article focuses on the direct or the indirect characteristics of these approaches.

The Direct Route

The direct approach seeks victory in every engagement. Like Chess players have the objective to “checkmate” the opponent by placing it under an inescapable threat of capture, the direct Project Manager and PMO goal is to insure the right conditions are in place to make the project succeed in every of its intermediate deliveries as defined by an initial roadmap.

This approach easily leads to activism and risk of overload since intermediate deliverables must be met whatever the changes in the surrounding situation and its potential. Worse, leaving the outcome achievement to the sponsor makes this direct approach very dangerous by decoupling the project team’s accountability for outputs and the sponsor’s accountability for outcomes. When things go wrong, the leadership will tend to add rules and prescriptions. But the more they will, the worse the situation will be. An organization overwhelmed with rules becomes poor.

In the direct approach, a project has a course of action that is imposed on a reality that is continuously evolving.

The Indirect Route

Since most projects present characteristics of complexity, Project Managers and PMOs may prefer to choose the best possible approach between the most direct and most indirect ones.

Figure 1 shows key characteristics of both approaches. Reading François Jullien’s Treatise of Efficacy inspired it.

In the indirect approach, as compared to a direct approach, one prefers not to act in order to let the situation evolve and transform. The attention is given to the course of reality, and not primarily to the future model defined by the project.

It is given to the potential inherent in a situation rather than on the final model that is sought out.

An example of potential can be found in a loaded crossbow. A loaded crossbow has a very high potential compared to a simple sword’s potential. The archer does have to rush into action. He can prepare his time and position in order to catch any opportunity to unleash.

Figure 1 – A few characteristics of the direct and the indirect routes

The indirect Project Managers and PMOs promote an approach that focuses on the course of the things. They take profit of evolution and they assist development. Thus, what changes and evolves becomes an advantage more than a constraint. In addition, this approach allows the project leader to seek success more for potential than on project team members or stakeholders.

They favor logic of potential and consequences rather than one of means and ends. The project strategy evolves with the potential.

They also wait for the favorable time when things are ripe[1]. Their experience, wisdom, and intuition detect as soon as possible the facts, the trends, or the precursors to transitions.

A Route For A VUCA World

PMOs and all actors engaged in complex project management should study and learn this indirect approach.

It is often counterintuitive, especially in western cultures. However, practice shows that it works better than any classical direct approach in large complex projects.

Many generals and strategists recognized that they failed because they wanted to stick to their manual. Yet many others have demonstrated a remarkable capacity to be focused on the present situation. They have been open to catch every opportunity that shows up. When confronted with a new situation, which is most often the case, they voluntarily forget what they learned and did so far to adapt to the new situation and invent new ways to deal with it.

Start With Roudness, Finish With Squareness

If you read my articles, you surely noticed the need for an equilibrium between two opposed states. This is the case between order and non-order in a system. But let us compare here the two routes: the direct route to “squareness”, and the indirect route to “roudness”.

So, as a conclusion, let us turn to François Jullien, a French philosopher. Jullien explains in his Treatise of the Efficacy that[1]:

So long as nothing has taken on a visible form, particularly on the side of one’s enemy or interlocutor, one directs the course of negotiations within a roundness; later, when signs appear, one needs to manage the situation in a square fashion[2]. In other words, one should be round before the situation actualizes itself and square once it has become actualized.

Do you see how to apply this article in your own life?

Please discuss this article here.


The article is inspired from my book the High-Impact PMO that you can buy on Amazon

Or read my most successful articles here:

High-Impact PMO

[1] F. Jullien, Treatise on the Efficacy, p. 128.

[2] Guigu Xiansheng, Guiguzi, chap. 2, “Fan Ying” or “Turn Back for Response.”

Is Your Strategy Compatible With Black Swans?

Ignoring Black Swans, Project managers pursue a predefined output within a set of constraints including time, resources, and scope.

Similarly, project sponsors expect to get the benefits promised by the project. They organize their work as if life was linear and deterministic. They ignore the Black Swans, or the unpredictable and high-impact events.

Yet we all note how difficult it is to deliver outputs, outcomes and benefits according to the premises made at the project launch. This remark also concerns programs and portfolios.

The reality is that life goes from fracture to fracture, with a few vibrations in between.

In the words of Nassim N. Taleb[1], “Black Swans dominate much of human history.” And this is true as well in the domain of project, program, and portfolio management.

A Black Swan, says Taleb, is “a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was.”

Look at the impact of the financial uncertainty, the technology changes or the trade war on your business.

And indeed, if I look back to the key events that strongly and positively impacted my own working life, almost none of them has been predicted.

My most exciting career move? Pure coincidence. My best boss? An error in an agenda. My greatest project success? No roadmap, almost no resources, yet a series of lucky unexpected opportunities[2].

So a project manager’s strategy should be to tinker as much as possible and try to collect as many Black Swan opportunities as possible.

Taleb explains: “If you know that you are vulnerable to prediction errors, and if you accept that most “risk measures” are flawed, because of the Black Swan, then your strategy is to be as hyper-conservative and hyper-aggressive as you can be instead of being mildly aggressive or conservative.”

“Instead of investing all your resources in “medium risk” actions, invest a portion, say 85 to 90 percent, in extremely safe actions. And assign the remaining 10 to 15 percent in extremely speculative actions, as leveraged as possible (like introducing new business models, new technologies, or a “prima donna” in your project).”

Above all, do not rely (too much) on top-down planning. Learn instead what serendipity means. And focus on maximum tinkering and recognizing opportunities when they present themselves.

This requires that you invest in preparedness, more than in prediction, and that you counterbalance your traditional Goals-Ways-Means strategy with a strategy based on Situation-Potential-Ripeness as for example the Chinese Mencius explained around 300 B.C.

Why don’t you take a few minutes and make the following exercise?

Consider your own life in the domain of project management. Which (unpredictable high-impact) “fractures” did you personally experienced? Do you feel prepared for a future Black Swan? Would you like to write a short comment about your experience?

To your continued success


High-Impact PMO

[1] Nassim N. Taleb, The Black Swan

[2] More related stories from project, program, and portfolio managers are in my book : The High-Impact PMO


Only an Indirect Approach Works in a Complex World

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.


indirect approach

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.


direct approach

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.


indirect approach


Philippe Husser


[1] Mencius II, A, 2.