Two related fields have seen a burst of interest in serious research and popular literature recently: the study of happiness and the application of ideas from economics to other fields. This book combines the two and is unfortunately far weaker than others of both types.
Initially I had high expectations. The author is a highly respected economist and thinker. The book is well researched, clearly written and easy to understand.
The first hint of a problem arrives early on with what I took to be an unnecessary dig at Dan Ariely's book, Predictably Irrational. Having read that book, and attended a lecture by its author, I can attest that on this subject he is as far above John Kay as a statesman is above a ranting drunkard.
"Obliquity" is a string of anecdotes of effective and ineffective planning, strategy and problem solving from which the author pretends he has identified a new idea, namely that oblique thinking is better than direct thinking. The anecdotes are sometimes interesting and insightful. The problem is that the overall thesis is utterly vacuous. Pol Pot, Lenin, City bonuses, and high rise housing were bad because they lacked obliquity, while chaotic free markets and the route of the Panama Canal, were good because they were oblique.
John Kay's trick is to switch between precise and vague meanings of his central term. In his examples where obliquity means something precise he fails to show that it has caused the good outcome. In the examples of successfully oblique thinking, the common thread is so loose that the word has lost all meaning. He might as well talk about creative thinking, lateral thinking or just being smart. How much does this matter? A lot, actually. A new concept justifies a new book in a growing market. A new name for a collection of anecdotes, most of which are old and many of which have already been discussed in books on effective thinking, is not worth publishing.
Let's examine one area in more detail - business, a field John Kay genuinely knows something about. He says companies which aim to make profits fail to make them because they lack obliquity. He cites spectacular examples such as ICI, Citibank and Lehmann Brothers and shows how shortsighted and foolish their management was. Their stated aim was direct, their strategy failed. Ra-ra for obliquity! What exactly has he proved? - that some companies focusing too much on profits failed. Stupendous. Actually some companies that don't focus enough on profits fail. And some companies that focus a lot on profits succeed. Success in business depends on an awful lot of things, such as whether the strategy suited the circumstance and whether management was smart. The examples prove absolutely nothing and, what is worse, I have a strong suspicion that John Kay knows it. Even if it were true, which I doubt, that the majority of outstandingly successful companies had oblique goals, that would not mean that all companies should have oblique goals. A more likely conclusion would be that where there was a possibility to make a huge fortune in a new line of business (such as Facebook) the way to do it was by relying on vision. The majority of companies doing mundane things like collecting waste would still need to watch their profits.
The discussion on happiness is equally fatuous. Let me paraphrase his argument. Sitting on the sofa and watching television while stuffing your face with crisps is enjoyable. Climbing a mountain makes you cold, tired and hungry, yet people who do the first (no obliquity) are unhappy while those doing the second (obliquity) are happy. Amazing! - obliquity is the source of true happiness. I beg to suggest a simpler explanation: happiness comes not from superficial pleasures but from deep and enduring satisfaction. You don't need obliquity to work that out.
If you have never read anything about creative thinking, economics in everyday life, or what makes people happy, you would like an entertaining introductory romp through a variety of disparate anecdotes, and don't care whether the thesis is meaningful, this book could be worth reading. But for a writer of John Kay's quality, "Obliquity" is, frankly, a disgrace.