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.

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

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

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

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