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Obliquity: Why Our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly by John Kay, book reviewWhen I was presented with a copy of John Kay’s book Obliquity, my heart sank just a little at seeing the words “goals” and “achieved” used in the same sentence on the front cover. Books that use these sorts of words are usually dull, prescriptive and….well, the sort of books that Kay goes to considerable length to tell you are not in slightest bit helpful. Why? Because they are too direct to work in an uncertain world such as ours.

Obliquity – as a more effective alternative to directness in Kay’s terminology – is basically an extended essay that grew out of a short article in the Financial Times’ weekend magazine in January 2004. Developed over several years into a full and persuasive book, Obliquity sets out to evidence that oblique processes surround us in everyday life in part 1, before going on to explain why directness can often be self-defeating in part 2, and finishing up in part 3 by showing us how to solve problems the oblique way. This is nothing if not a methodical book.

The basic idea is that goals, in whatever sphere of life, are best achieved by taking an indirect approach, however paradoxical this might feel. Being an economist, Kay’s examples are frequently taken from the areas of business and finance. For instance, say you wanted to buy a car and you find you have a choice between two vehicles – one was built by a company who builds cars because they love cars, while the other is built by a company solely interested in making a profit by selling cars to people like you. Which company do you suppose makes the best car – and which do you suppose would end up being the most profitable company in the long run? Kay’s point is that a person or company doing or making something because they love it will create a very good something as a result of their passion, and will therefore likely become profitable as a consequence of this. People concerned solely with profit generally face commercial failure because their desire makes them overlook the very things that make the company profitable. Aiming directly for profit therefore rarely works, while the oblique approach of aiming for a good business will indirectly create profit. This is an interesting idea, and one that can be well applied to other areas of life, like the building of the Panama Canal, which was not the most direct route between the busiest ports of central America, but was certainly the most effective. This can also be applied to happiness, as Kay points out; those who strive for happiness directly tend to find themselves miserable while those who devote their lives to a pursuit they find meaningful simply for itself – art, music, sport, whatever – take the oblique route to finding happiness by creating a sense of satisfaction and absorption from their actions (what Kay terms “flow”).

“The idea of obliquity is perhaps nothing new, but the way that Kay describes it, argues for it … is novel and makes for interesting reading.”

Why should this be the case? “In general, oblique approaches recognise that complex objectives tend to be imprecisely defined and contain many elements that are not necessarily or obviously compatible with one another” Kay explains, noting that “oblique approaches often step backwards to move forwards”. An imprecise goal (such as “to live a happy life”) with incompatible parts (“I’ll be happy if I’m slim, but eating chocolate also makes me happy”) combined with the unknowns of the complex world we live in conspire to make direct approaches fraught with uncertainty and failure. The lateral thinking that inspires an oblique approach – such as the Japanese capture of Singapore by attacking through the supposedly impenetrable landward jungle on bicycles rather than the heavily defended sea approach as expected by the British defenders – often leads to greater success. Or to take a different example, Kay amusingly shows how imposing new government targets in the public sector when none existed before can worsen the service provided because some efforts that would previously have been directed towards providing that service now go towards satisfying the targets instead (although I doubt many readers will have been surprised by that one).

The idea of obliquity is perhaps nothing new, but the way that Kay describes it, argues for it and provides a framework to which it can be applied to better our own decision making is novel and makes for interesting reading. He can also be praised for the breadth of the examples used – this book may be grounded in economics, but discussions ranging from the compiling of anthologies to how Beckham scored a certain free kick against Greece make it a good deal more accessible to a general audience. Admittedly there were a few places where I found it hard work or a trifle repetitive, but the majority of the book was highly readable and even managed to stray over into humour (and I never thought I would say that about anything written by an economist).

Of course, the down side of reading this book is that you soon come to realise that the people praised for taking a direct approach to solving our problems and tackling issues strongly and head on (usually politicians) are the ones that are being (now provably) ineffective. Those oblique thinkers lurking in the background that might come up with more effective results are usually overlooked by the world at large because the public cannot directly and easily link their processes with the results they want. This might lead us into missing out on good decision making and problem solving that would benefit us greatly. A sobering thought in a time where there seems to be so many problems that would benefit from some fresh, lateral thinking.


Obliquity by John Kay
Paperback edition, 210pp, Profile Books, February 2011

With thanks to Profile Books for sending me my review copy of Obliquity.

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Obliquity: Why Our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly
by John Kay

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Written by collingwood21

Collingwood21 is a 32 year old university administrator and ex-pat northerner living down south. Married. Over-educated. Loves books, history, archaeology and writing.

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