Decoding the DNA of Strategy Execution

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In this episode, Jack Duggal shares some tips on how to decode the DNA of strategy execution.


Jack is the founder and managing principal of Projectize Group, specializing in next-generation strategy, execution facilitation, and consulting. He works with leading organizations from NASA to Silicon Valley and companies and governments around the world. He is a TEDx speaker and internationally recognized expert in strategy, execution, and PMO with over 25 years of experience. Jack is also the author of “The DNA of Strategy-Execution – Next Generation Project Management and PMO”.

Jack is deep into decoding the DNA of strategy, execution, and transformation in a “DANCE” – dynamic, ambiguous, non-linear, complex, emergent, and an increasingly uncertain world.

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Highlights from Episode 127: “Decoding the DNA of strategy execution” with Jack Duggal

Can you tell us a little about your own background and how you became deeply involved in the PM industry?

Sure. Let’s see. So, I started way back in systems which used to be called IS and so on, and the financial services environment. And one of the things that struck me was as we were doing a lot of systems-type things that our partners on the other side, the business folks were always complaining, and they were not happy and pointing fingers at our systems and how we could do better.

So, I was very young and naive and I had some ideas, only if I got the opportunity to be the boss or the manager to do it, but I had no way of how I could make a difference in it. So, I started thinking about it. And in those days project management, this is the mid-90s it was very new and certainly in our company, we hadn’t heard about it. But I started researching, reading, and so on and I found I didn’t have too many opportunities in that company. So I quit. Yeah, I did make a bold move. I quit.

I started researching a lot about project management and I was fortunate enough to get a job as a project manager in a large professional services organization, which was the best thing because it gave me the opportunity to work in many, many different industries with many diverse clients and challenges. So, that’s how I got started. I started as a project manager in about a year or two. I started leading project management teams and eventually, we started building the PMO and leading the PMO and organizations for ourselves and then eventually for our clients.

How did you meet the challenges that you faced in organizations that said: “Project management? What’s that? We’ll do the jobs as we always do them?”

One of the things was, as I was doing these projects, it was great as a young and naive project manager, I applied all the things I was learning and seeing, and all the training that we were taking, all the templates and the tools we were using. And things were good, but just for a little while. And they would work and projects that we had done before that we were very, very familiar with. But as we got into larger projects and more complicated and complex situations, a lot of the things that I was trained for or familiar with did not work.

From that point onwards, I really started scratching my head and thinking “There has to be a different way. There has to be a better way. What does the next generation of project management look like?” In doing that as we were building PMOs for ourselves, one of the things that struck us was like all the traditional approaches to project management where it’s a very linear approach where you sort of scope, plan, execute, and control. And that works, but it works only in stable situations where you’ve figured everything out, the requirements are clear and there is a low degree of uncertainty.

But as things get larger, more people are involved, more stakeholders are involved. It’s a very, very dynamic situation and those ideas do not work much longer. And even though you may have all the processes and tools, it becomes very challenging. One of the things in our research that really was an eye-opener, that really prompted this whole thing even more so, to seek the sort of the next generation is this statistic which is a high degree of compliance, 80% and above to project management processes did not correlate to project success. So, we’re following everything we have been taught, we have all the processes in place but it does not correlate to project management success. So, clearly, there’s something amiss here. There’s something we need to think differently.

Tell us a little bit about your theories concerning the DNA of strategy execution.

First of all, let me emphasize, these are not theories. Let me back up a little bit. So, what happened was, as I’ve worked with that professional services organization for a while and then in early 2000, I started our own group, the Projectized Group. And also at the same time, I started working, doing seminars with PMI and one of the questions for the last 20 years we have been looking at is – What does the next generation of project management or even broadly, strategy execution look like?

So, what happened was it was a journey where we were talking to literally hundreds of different organizations and people, thousands of people from different environments where we were questioning and challenging each other on what, how do we need to change? Why do these traditional ideas don’t work anymore? What do they look like? I came about, you know, to really question. What does the next generation look like?

So, if we zoom out on a broad sort of headline, the first big “Ah-ha!” for us was that the traditional approaches are very, very mechanical. They are linear and mechanical and it comes out, over the last hundred, hundred and fifty years, if you look at it, most of business and management is more built on a foundation of a mechanical approach. So, let’s say your organization is a factory. And if you have a factory, you can come up with a good process and it works.

So, for example, we brought the whole mindset to project management also, so projects are kind of like manufacturing in a factory using structured processes in a controlled environment that can deliver predictable and consistent outputs each time. So, in this environment, we can rely on manuals and step-by-step instructions and recipes, and so on. But the big “Ah-ha!” for us, if you really think about it, it’s not mechanical, it’s more organic because that’s how we do projects. We work with people and all those working in this environment are more like a complex adaptive system, where everything is connected to everything else.

So, it’s more organic and that requires a fundamental mindset shift in how we think about it. So, in this environment, for example, we could summarize project management in one word which is SPEC – Scope, Plan, Execute, and Control. That’s what we call the traditional approach which has worked well for the last 150 years, but now we live in a different world and SPEC works, but it doesn’t work for everything and we have to figure out the things where it works for and in an organic environment we need a different way of thinking about.

Can you tell us a bit about your DANCE approach?

So, DANCE was an acronym we coined somewhere in the mid-2000s, as we were really trying to struggle with some of these issues to see how we shift the focus and what is really going on? What impacts our project environment? So the DANCE is an acronym that stands for Dynamic, Ambiguous, Non-Linear, Complex, and Emergent. So, just to give you a little bit of background we coined this term somewhere in the mid-2000s and I started writing about it in my articles and so on.

At that point, I didn’t know about this, but later on, I came across this term, which I’m sure you’ve heard about, and it’s almost become like a buzzword now called VUCA. So, VUCA is Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, and Ambiguous. VUCA was coined by the US military in the 1980s. I had not heard about it until much after the DANCE. So, when I saw VUCA, I said: “Well, this is cool.” So, DANCE is almost like the next generation of VUCA because, in the DANCE, we cover a couple of areas that are sort of not called out specifically or more which is the non-linear part and emergent part. And let me explain a little bit more about what actually each of these means.

Nowadays, you’ll see a lot of people talk about it, most presentations will start with “Oh, we live in a VUCA world” but the challenge is most people do not really understand VUCA. Even the people who are talking about it. It’s just more like a buzzword that’s appropriate for the moment. But what does it really mean?

So, let’s look at the DANCE. So, DANCE is dynamic. Everything is changing and it’s changing so fast. It is impossible to forecast or plan for the degree of change and volatility that can be triggered by the unexpected. So, why is it dynamic? Because we are hyper-connected. So, it’s not just, as soon as you have done your plan, you come out of your meeting, your boss or somebody, one of the big sponsors sends a tweet. Oh and the whole thing shifts. So, as long as you’ve updated the plan, but before you go back and sit on your desk, it’s changed again. It’s very, very dynamic. And in these environments, the more you try to plan and control, the more it fluctuates, the more variance you get and it provides a false sense of security. Okay, that’s just the first part of the DANCE.

The A is ambiguous. There are too many people involved and everybody wants something different. So, in this type of ambiguity, how do you even do a good job with requirements? If it’s a simple thing like “I want to make this chair” The project is very, very simple – chair. Okay, I can break down the requirements. I can understand it and I can SPEC it. I can scope it, plan it, execute it, control it.

But the world we live in today is not just the chair but its kind of like the monkey who’s going to sit on the chair and it’s hard to get inside the monkey’s mind to see what it wants, whether it is going to like the chair or not. It wants a reconfigurable chair. Now, it wants a chair that it redesigns itself from time to time. And it gives it updates and on, and on, and on. And as soon as you give something to the monkey again, it has changed its mind. So, how do we even plan? That’s just the “A” part.

The N stands for non-linear. So, traditional approaches are based on stable environments where things are linear and expected. In a non-linear world, it’s even hard to determine the cause and effect and as humans we go crazy, project managers go crazy when they can’t determine the cause to the effect and they can’t link it. So, sequential tasks and dependencies do not seem to hold and we find ourselves kind of entangled in a web. So, we have to really understand non-linearity and the effects of non-linearity are exponential. All of these things were harder to explain, maybe even like eight months ago and finding in my work these days it is much easier for people to understand this due to what we have been going through with Covid because we are facing all these things right now.

C is complex. Most people do not understand complexity. They confuse it with complicatedness, which is different. Most traditional project management approaches that are designed to deal with complicated problems. Like, how do we build a spacecraft or aeroplane or a car or a bicycle or whatever, but complex is, you have to understand, it’s more organic, it’s biological. It’s living. It’s breathing. It’s more dynamic. So, complexity, by the way, happens with living things because you have people and humans involved in projects just like nature, there is a multiplicity of intricacies and overlaps. There’s a lot of interdependencies.

So, overall in a project, three things cost more complexity. One is the multiplicity overall. The more people involved, the more monkeys involved, the more stakeholders involved, the more things you have to do. So, multiplicity of people, multiplicity of communications, or information that flows across that needs to flow and the connections. So, think about it, even if you compare today versus a year ago or two years ago. That is just exponential. We are hyper, hyper-connected. So, things are a lot more complex today than they were even eight months ago. So, that’s complex.

And the last one is E which is emergent. Emergent and unpredictable. So, what happens is, because we are organic and living, there’s spontaneous emergence where components will self-organize to produce capabilities and outcomes that are neither obvious nor predictable. So, we can predict them.

Show Notes

Connect with Jack Duggal on LinkedIn.
Find out more about Jack’s company Projectize Group

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