Obliquity: A book review by Bob Morris


Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly
John Kay
Penguin Books (2011)

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant. Success in circuit lies.”  Emily Dickinson

The Dickinson quotation suggests — as does the subtitle of John Kay’s book — that there are situations in which goals are best achieved indirectly. I agree with him: “If people are predictably irrational, perhaps they are not irrational at all. Perhaps the fault lies not with the world but with our concept of irrationality. Perhaps we should think differently about how we really make decisions and solve problems. Perhaps we should recognize the obliquity, and inevitability, of obliquity.” In fact, why be oblique on this point? We SHOULD re-think how we think…we SHOULD recognize what we have previously missed or ignored.

This is precisely what Kay has in mind when observing, “An oblique approach recognizes that what we want from a home, or a community, has many elements. We will never succeed in fully specifying what they are, and to the extent that we do, we discover that they are often incompatible and inconsistent.” This is one of his most important points: There are specific limits to what a direct approach can resolve; however, if there is a complicated question to answer, a complicated problem to solve, or a complicated task to completed, only an oblique approach can succeed. Moreover, with rare exception, several persons must be involved. The approach must be oblique because the process will be one of continuous discovery and adaptation, application and modification, etc.

Consider the great teams in history such as the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, the Disney animators who produced a series of classics such as Snow White and Bambi, and the engineers employed by Lockheed at its Skunk Works. All the members of a team know more, can do more, and do it better than any one member can. Here’s what Kay has to say about all this: “Obliquity is the best approach whenever complex systems evolve in an uncertain environment and whenever the effect of our actions depends on the way in which others respond to them…Directness is only appropriate when the environment is stable, objectives are one-dimensional and transparent and it is possible to determine when and whether goals have been achieved. The word of politics and business today is afflicted by many hedgehogs, men and women who mistakenly believe the world is like that.” Oh that it were.

Kay clearly explains the “what” of obliquity but devotes most of his attention to WHY and/or HOW. More specifically,

In Part One:

o How the happiest people do not pursue happiness
o The most profitable companies are not the most profit oriented
o The wealthiest people are not the most materialistic
o The means help us to discover the ends
o Obliquity is relevant to many aspects of our lives

In Part Two:

o Oblique approaches succeed
o There is usually more than one answer to a problem
o The Outcome of what we do depends on how we do it
o The world is too complex for directness to be direct
o We rarely know enough about the nature of our problems
o Models are imperfect

In Part Three:

o We mistakenly infer design from the outcome
o We have less freedom of choice than we think
o Decision makers recognize the limits of their knowledge
o Adaptation is smarter than we are
o We know more than we can tell
o Complex outcomes are achieved without knowledge of an overall purpose
o It is more important to be right than to be consistent
o Spurious rationality is often confused with good decision making

The development of the concepts in this book followed an oblique path from drafts that resulted in an article published in the Financial Times (January 17, 2004). The process continued during John Kay’s subsequent journey of continuous discovery and adaptation, application and modification, etc. The result is this book, first published in 2010. No brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the quality of information, insights, and counsel he provides but I hope that I have at least indicated why I think so highly of Obliquity. If you want to put some white caps on your gray matter, look no further.

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