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ObliquityReview - Obliquity
Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly
by John Kay
Penguin Press, 2011
Review by Chris Vaughan
Oct 4th 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 40)

In the days of sailing ships it was not always possible to reach one's destination directly; you had to adjust your sails to the prevailing wind and travel zigzag fashion.  When engineers started building canals at the start of the industrial revolution, they cut the canals according to the contour of the land. With the invention of steam ships and improved earth cutting technology, sea and canal travel became straight forward.  Government and big business have frequently entertained the idea, given enough power and resources, they can set objectives and realise them in a specified timeframe and now, with improvements in information technology and planning techniques, this seems even more plausible, even in today's complicated world.

John Kay begs to differ. This sort of thinking is illusory, he maintains.  In this he is following in the footsteps of Henry Mintzberg who showed in his book The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, written seventeen years ago and still relevant, that the fallacy behind  so much corporate thinking,   is a logical one, compounding the analytic process of planning with the synthetic process of strategy. For Kay it is more one of hubris; blinding oneself to the nuances and peculiarities of one's unique situation and not adjusting one's direction of travel and even one's goals in the light of circumstances. Thus Kay's book is just as much about achieving one's own personal goals and ambitions as it is about corporate behaviour. "In business, in politics and in our personal lives, we do not often solve problems directly. The objectives we manage are multiple, incommensurable and partly incompatible."

Obliquity describes the process of achieving complex objectives indirectly. In general, oblique approaches recognize that complex objectives tend to be imprecisely defined and contain many elements that are not necessarily or obviously compatible with one another, and that we learn about the nature of the objectives and means of achieving them during a process of experiment and discovery. He says 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 world of politics and business today, in his opinion, is afflicted by men and women who mistakenly believe the world is like that.

Many of Kay's case studies are derived from the world of business. From the evidence he produces it would appear that the overwhelming secret of business success and success in life is not to seek fame or fortune directly but always have a transcendent goal before one and do our tasks because they are worth doing and not for any instrumental reason. Kay points out that the wealthiest people from Andrew Carnegie to Bill Gates had a passion for their work rather than setting material goals and all the evidence, he says, points to the most profitable firms being the ones that concentrate on excellent products or service than those whose stated objective is increased profits.

He is at pains to show that business is not just about increased profits or maximising shareholder value.  In fact, chasing profits could be chasing after a chimera as such a notion is just as abstract as concepts such as happiness or beauty. Kay, who is the founder of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, says he has not yet been able to arrive at a satisfactory definition of profit, certainly not one that can be quantified in any absolute sense.

Kay is not saying that we should conduct our lives without rules; that everything should be done on a whim. He is saying that to excel in any field you need to master the rules but when they need to be bent or broken to accommodate circumstances which the rules don't encompass, to be in a position to adapt or throw them aside. Novice chess players often lose because they make mistakes and don't apply the basic rules. But novices often lose because they do apply these rules. Gary Kasparov, for instance, is an expert not only at applying the rules but also in understanding when the rules can be broken. Kay cites the findings of Gary Klein who has studied this kind of expertise over many years and he says the key to success for these top practitioners is pattern recognition rather than calculation. They used successive limited comparison, they made an assessment and if evidence seemed inconsistent with that assessment, they adopted an alternative.

Kay is at pains to point out that what might look like intuition or instinct even, is in fact accumulated knowledge built up over years of trial and error and is decidedly a rational, evidential process. History is haunted by leaders who have constructed their view of the world on very little evidence and acted with maniacal certainty at great human cost. Through the intuition that is independent of reason, analysis or specific knowledge, he says, Adolf Hitler apprehended that the world was endangered by a Jewish-Bolshevik conspiracy.

Much knowledge is acquired obliquely and there is much obliquity in the expertise of skilled professionals, but he is emphatic that assertions based on such knowledge, or claims to such expertise, are subject to same tests of empirical validity as other scientific knowledge. The skills of Beckham and Kasparov are proved by their match results, those by fire-fighters in their success in putting out fires.

  What at first could be taken to be a book of business advice by a leading economist, is in fact a book about life and about what the ancients termed Wisdom. "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all else will be added unto you" could be its subtitle. The job of the artist or the poet or the educator or the business person is not to give us what we already have. Their role is to interpret more fully than we could ourselves the underlying high-level objectives that we seek from art, poetry, education or goods and services. "As Solon observed," says Kay, "only at the end will we know whether life was lived well." Kay says we don't reach decisions about how to behave, what should go into a poem, what to teach or how to run a company as a result of performing some direct process that begins with abstract speculation about these large and general questions. We reach these decisions through an oblique process of negotiation, adaptation and compromise.

There's no brain science here, no psychology of perception or even an epistemological slant on our selective grasp of reality; nor is Kay willing to get drawn into applying the principles he outlines here to the recent banking crash or contemporary geopolitical events. There are no Zen paradoxes here, no yin and yang dialectics. But reflecting on his experience of the world he inhabits, Kay reaches conclusions that are akin to these traditions.  Obliquity is a sophisticated and literate treatise on navigating one's way through life in the tradition of great essayists such as Montaigne or Hazlitt: a careful setting out of personal reflections after a distinguished career in public life.

 

© 2011 Chris Vaughan

 

Chris Vaughan writes about himself: I live in Birmingham, England. I am now retired after a career in the pharma industry and am very much involved in community activities. I am a board member of the Birmingham Environmental Partnership and chair a local patient network. I have written a book on the British Health Service and I currently write for a health website. I am very interested in the mind-body.


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