Five Rules for Managing Complex Strategic Initiatives

Complexity 3

Complex strategic initiatives involved numerous actors making decisions for different reasons, delays between actions and outcomes, and ambiguity. The most apt descriptor comes from complexity theorists, “unordered environments.” Here, the leader’s goal is to create the conditions for good things to emerge (rather than predictable outcomes).

Three examples of complex strategic initiatives are Google’s initiatives in the news business, IBM’s speed team, and Wal-Mart’s greening in China. (For contrast, Domino’s Pizza Turnaround and the Heathcare IT cases operated in relatively more-ordered environments. Complexity theory would describe them as “complicated” in that they are working toward a pre-determined result by applying plan-your-work-and-work-your-plan methods.)

In complex strategic initiatives, you avoid forcing a solution. You create an array of agile market/technology solutions and position yourself to capture emerging opportunities .

Rule #1 – Manage Starting (Initial) Conditions

Small changes in initial conditions can have great subsequent effect (in complexity theory, this is known as the Butterfly Effect). For me, this principle becomes a simple rule,

Get off to a good start! You’ll have little opportunity to recapture the moment.

Advice:  apply the four driving questions, a “secret” for success. The questions are,

  1. Why are we doing this?
  2. Who needs to be involved?
  3. What exactly are we going to do?
  4. When are we going to do it?

The team asks and answers the four driving questions in order. The approach assures that there is a compelling reason, top-notch people are involved, etc. When good people understand the reason for strategy, they can more artfully construct a coherent program of value delivery.

Rule #2 – Broaden the Involvement of Stakeholders

The presence of numerous stakeholders is one attribute of an unordered environment. Not only are there many stakeholders, their interests are nuanced and difficult to discern.

An important task is outreach. As I identify individuals and groups, I create dialogue around questions such as:

  • Do they agree on the nature and patterns of the problem or opportunity?
  • Do they agree on the solution design?
  • Are they willing to make sacrifices and promises?
  • What benefits does the stakeholder seek?
  • What kinds of metrics are in use, and should be in use?

Rule #3 – Dissent Strengthens the Strategy

Strategy operates in organizations where different stakeholders hold various points of view. Often, these views are grounded in differing set of facts.

Here is where leadership behaviors become essential.  The leader needs to engage (e.g., hold conversations) with stakeholders to make strategy more transparent. As new facts come to light, new insights emerge. Often you will find that you can “flip” opponents into supporters by accommodating their criticisms and point of view into the program. This “generative” approach to strategy incorporates each perspective and increases the probability that the organization will actually implement something (rather than defer action for a future date).

I call it constructive dissent.

Rule #4- Increase Learning with Rapid Experimentation
This rule reflects the Chief Learning Officer role (follow this link for an introduction to the role), applying the dictum, “fast to learn is fast to deliver.”

You improve speed and probability of success by launching multiple probes. Here are four types of probes. If you detect a response, you have learned something useful.

  • People
  • Ideas
  • Resources
  • Location

Finally, pay attention to weak (as well as strong) signals.

Rule #5 – Monitor for Emergence

Complex programs operate in unordered environments. We watch for the presence of “strange attractors” that arise and create new market and industry structures.

An example: Apple’s capture of digital music opportunity through its iPod and iTunes business ecosystem. Steve Jobs answered the what-is-your-strategy question in a 1998 interview, with these words,

“I am going to wait for the next big thing.”

Jobs did not know what “the next big thing” was, but he knew that the industry was constantly introducing new technologies. Jobs knew he needed to be patient and alert for the short term. When the time was right, he showed that he could be agile and aggressive with opportunities.

The learning: keep your “heads up” with the expectation that opportunity will emerge.  My article on Path Finding and Way Finding might be helpful for you.


Complex business environments have complex patterns of behavior; maybe bordering on chaotic. Traditional command-and-control approaches have limited utility. Instead, you need to embrace leadership tools and ideas that recognize the non-linear elements of complexity.

How do you manage complexity?


About Greg Githens

Author, How to Think Strategically (2019) Executive and leadership coach. Experience in driving change in Fortune 500 and mid-size companies through strategic initiatives and business transformation. Seminar leader and facilitator - high-impact results in crafting and delivering strategy, strategic initiatives, program management, innovation, project management, risk, and capturing customer requirements.
This entry was posted in Ambiguity and Strong-Minded Thinking, Strategic Planning Issues for Strategic Initiatives, Strategy, Success Principles for Strategic Initiatives and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Five Rules for Managing Complex Strategic Initiatives

  1. Greg: a really good posting. Thanks, John Goodpasture

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