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Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly Paperback – 3 Feb 2011

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Product details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Profile Books (3 Feb. 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1846682894
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846682896
  • Product Dimensions: 12.9 x 1.7 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (78 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 217,034 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


This is an elegant, simple book and, rarely for a business book, is written by a man who actually understands the academics and philosophers he quotes. The best nine quid you'll spend this year (Jeremy Hazlehurst City AM)

[A] smart, witty book (William Leith Evening Standard)

John Kay is an admirable debunker of myths and false beliefs - he can see substantial things others don't. Read this book. (Nassim N Taleb The Black Swan)

Economics with style as well as substance (Stephen Bayley, architecture and design correspondent Observer)

Obliquity is a characteristic John Kay production. It is a pleasure to read (Howard Davies Financial Times)

How rare is it for an academic economist to write with such clarity, intelligence and courage. And, in these troubled, confusing times, how desperately we need other dismal scientists to follow John Kay's shining example. (Liam Halligan Spectator Business)

Book Description

An original, widely-applicable concept from one of the world's foremost economists. Tim Harford says it is 'persuasive, rigorous, creative and wise. Brilliant'.

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Customer Reviews

3.4 out of 5 stars

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By daja on 16 Feb. 2012
Format: Paperback
Kay cleverly starts with what he calls "Franklin's Gambit". This is the assertion that we do not base our decisions on good reasons but that whatever we decide, we will subsequently find good reasons for backing our decision. This makes it hard to criticise this book. I didn't like it. Here are my reasons. But are they post hoc justifications for my instinctive dislike or are they the reasons which genuinely led up to my disliking this book?

I didn't like this book because I am suspicious of his evidence base. Like many such popular treatises he bases his arguments on selected anecdotes. As an economist he starts with examples where great businesses decide to focus on 'maximising shareholder value' and, he claims as a consequence' lost their way. He includes Boeing, ICI, Marks and Spencer and Merck as well as less known companies such as Litton Industries. But many great organisations lose their way and decline, partly because they fail to adapt to changing circumstances and partly no doubt purely because of regression to the mean. He is no doubt correct to analyse the failure of lobster fishery Prelude Corporation as down to the attempt to impose management methods from other industries to their own. As he points out: "You don't make fish, you hunt it. Your success depends on the flair, skills and initiative of people who cannot be effectively supervised" (p27).

He then broadens his argument to include Lenin's direct approach to modernising Russia and Le Corbusier's architecture to suggest that the direct approach to solving problems is always worse than the oblique approach. He suggests that anyone who believes that they can control a society or a complex business is both arrogant and unimaginative.
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30 of 33 people found the following review helpful By hfffoman TOP 500 REVIEWER on 26 April 2011
Format: Paperback
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.
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71 of 79 people found the following review helpful By S. Yogendra VINE VOICE on 15 April 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
On the cover of John Kay's new book (hardback edition), Tim Harford pronounces it "persuasive". Yet Harford's approach and argument in his subsequent column in the FT on March the 18th, 2010, titled "Political Ideas Need Proper Testing" suggested that he is far from persuaded by Mr Kay's argument. That wasn't a good start to reading this book.

John Kay's core thesis is that in any setting, there are multiple, often conflicting, goals; and that instead of a linear rational model, the best approach to problem-solving is oblique, an approach for which he coins the neologism `obliquity'.

The book is organised in three parts. Part one explains how the world abounds in obliquity, citing specifically how success in finding happiness and profits (in a business setting) does not come from direct pursuits, and how the rich people are not the most materialistic. There are amusing stories but Mr Kay cherry-picks the arguments, that bolster his thesis, and ignores how some of the least materialistic rich men cited were also single-minded in their pursuit of money.

Part two explains why problems cannot be solved directly. Here he dwells upon how rational models fail to capture the real dynamics of political decision making. He devotes time to demonstrating why this is the case where plural outcomes may exist, and where complexity and incompleteness mar our understanding of the problem. He also proposes that obliquity is a better term for Charles Lindblom's coinage,"muddling through", as an explanation of political decision making. Further he makes the case that the more one participates in or studies something, the better one understands and abstracts its complexity, its essence.
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