Strategies: Direct or Indirect?

Strategies: Direct or Indirect?

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:

Philippe Husser

Advancing Transformations in a Complex World

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