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Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly [Paperback]

John Kay
3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (72 customer reviews)
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Book Description

3 Feb 2011

If you want to go in one direction, the best route may involve going in another. This is the concept of 'obliquity': paradoxical as it sounds, many goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly. The richest men and women are not the most materialistic; the happiest people are not necessarily those who focus on happiness, and the most profitable companies are not always the most profit-oriented as the recent financial crisis showed us.

Whether overcoming geographical obstacles, winning decisive battles or meeting sales targets, history shows that oblique approaches are the most successful, especially in difficult terrain. John Kay applies his provocative, universal theory to everything from international business to town planning and from football to managing forest fire.

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Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly + The Long and the Short of it: A Guide to Finance and Investment for Normally Intelligent People Who Aren't in the Industry + The Hare and the Tortoise: An Informal Guide to Business Strategy
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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: 13.2 x 19.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (72 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 121,940 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


'This is an elegant book and is written by a man who actually understands the academics and philosophers he quotes.' --Jeremy Hazlehurst, City AM

'[A] smart, witty book' --William Leith, Evening Standard

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'.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
69 of 76 people found the following review helpful
By S. Yogendra VINE VOICE
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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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Dull dull dull 4 Jun 2011
By Rosie
John Kay has jumped on the Malcolm Gladwell/Tim Harford/Freakonomics bandwagon, and no doubt most people buying this book will be those who read and enjoyed those others. If that's you, then I suggest you do yourself a favour and give this one a miss. Kay came up with the name Obliquity to encapsulate the idea that problems (large problems at any rate) are best solved with an indirect approach. He takes this approach to writing the book. "Get it down. That is how this book was written..." and my goodness it shows. He just jumps around all over the place without any sort of clear idea of a structure to his narrative. Just whatever idea comes into his head is immediately splatted down on the paper. It's a jumble and it's hard to follow the thread of what he's saying. Maybe because there isn't a thread - what he has to say is an idea that can be encapsulated in one sentence and doesn't need a whole book of exposition.

In the way that Gladwell writes in such a wonderful, lively style, so you can't wait to turn the next page, Kay's writing plods on in a semi-academic fashion. You struggle to work out what he's saying, keep having to re-read passages to get the gist of it. And the words oblique and obliquity, never the prettiest of words, are there in every flipping paragraph, jumping off the page and hitting you between the eyes so you get to the point where you're just waiting for the next one (and trust me, you never have to wait very long) and missing the point of whatever it is he's driveling on about.
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Almost scandalously bad 26 April 2011
By hfffoman TOP 1000 REVIEWER
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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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars "Tell all the truth but tell it slant. Success in circuit lies."...
The Dickinson quotation suggests -- as does the subtitle of John Kay's book -- that there are situations in which goals are best achieved indirectly. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Robert Morris
3.0 out of 5 stars 21 elegant and erudite essays - but they didn't change my view of how...
Kay's thesis is that obliquity is an important concept. We achieve some of our goals obliquely (e.g. happiness). Read more
Published 3 months ago by William Jordan
4.0 out of 5 stars How decision making works and doesn’t work.
We live in a world where increasingly we believe that technology will answer our problems, and even our prayers. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Steven Unwin
5.0 out of 5 stars Execellent
Should be compulsory reading for anyone considering writing a business plan - there are no maps to guide us through the complexity of the modern world - we have to make our own... Read more
Published 7 months ago by John Newell
1.0 out of 5 stars O Bleakness!
Oscar Wilde once said: 'Talent borrows, genius steals.'

Warning to potential future readers: John Kay does both to his detriment. Read more
Published 10 months ago by Jackal
4.0 out of 5 stars Original and lateral
A brief and affordable essay on how one cauld enter the frame of mind of how many apparently do think; and helpful in understanding how not to move temptingly and instinctively... Read more
Published 18 months ago by Fransexluimi
2.0 out of 5 stars John Kay is a dull man
This is a pretty boring book. I gave up at chapter 10.

It's a formula book. John Kay's 'big idea' is that goals should be approached indirectly. Read more
Published 20 months ago by Matthew Pollock
1.0 out of 5 stars Just can't listen to it
I think when I ordered this I must have had illusions of grandeur. I wanted to be able to enjoy and understand my first grown up audio book but I just CANNOT listen to more than 5... Read more
Published 22 months ago by Fi P
5.0 out of 5 stars Why going around the houses is best
I enjoyed this book on many levels, not least because it confirmed a bias I have carried with me all my life - basically that to achieve what we really want in life, we stand a... Read more
Published 22 months ago by David Dunbar
4.0 out of 5 stars Great message for an easy read
All those who rated this book 2 stars or below seem like your typical critics. Only once in a lifetime do they come across worthy of a higher rating. Read more
Published on 3 April 2012 by Allan Clow
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