on 16 February 2012
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. And it is true that the Soviet Union collapsed and that many modernist buildings have been demolished. But Lenin and Stalin did (albeit brutally) drag a bankrupt, defeated, peasant nation into the industrial age despite the appalling trauma of the second world war.
Kay accepts that people need goals and objectives. But he seems to suggest that the goals should always be slightly off-target. Thus in golf: "you can only swing well when you can swing without thinking about it" (p43) which reminded me of Ian Botham's advice to partner Graham Dilley as they went out to bat with England following on and facing an innings defeat at Headingley in 1981: "Let's give it some humpty."
For Kay, the way to success is 'Muddling Through' and this does strike a chord with me. Kay equates muddling through with evolutionary adaptation which he sees as a slow, small step, incremental process. Darwinian Natural Selection, Kay points out, has no designer, no watchmaker (not even a blind one). And (going back to Frankiln's Gambit) teleological explanations for success are flawed: giraffes have long necks because they have long necks. "We find intentionality and design where there is only chance and improvisation; directness where there is obliquity." (p118)
Kay has a lot of good points but he over eggs the pudding. He quotes Lord Kelvin as saying that "when you cannot measure something ... 'your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind'" (p71); Kay damns this as leading "directly to the modern curse of bogus quantification." (p71) But while he is correct to mock indices for things such as happiness this should not mean that you should fail to measure that which can and should be measured.
He makes an interesting point about optimism which goes against the prevailing wisdom that optimists are always the great winners who live longer and succeed more. He quotes Admiral James Stockdale who survived lengthy captivity as a Vietnamese prisoner and who observed that "those who died were typically optimists" (p126) because the dashing of their hopes left them nothing left to live for. Optimists need resilience it seems.
He admires the "pragmatic improvisation" (p128) of F D Roosevelt and gives him the line: 'Try something. If it fails admit it frankly and try another'; I had always been told that it was Truman who said apropos his policies: 'We'll just try them and if they don't work we'll try something else.'
He rightly complains about consistency and precedent. How often have I longed for a politician to say 'I've changed my mind'; this would be a sign of strength rather than the weakness the political journalists suggest. And he points out that the fear of setting a precedent can sometimes make it harder to do the right thing.
The idea that Quality Assurance is simply a way of finding reasons post hoc for what we know a priori works is naively oversimplistic. My maxim would be: 'If it ain't broke don't QA it'. QA's principal concern is not with justifying what is quality but with improving what is not quality. And the clever use of data is to ask questions not to find solutions. So if I study the performance tables for British schools in a scientific and enquiring way I may find patterns that prompt me to ask what might be the causes for various perceived effects.
Kay himself suggests limits to obliquity. George Soros has noticed that his back aches when he subconsciously perceives that something dodgy is happening. Awareness of this intuition enables him to investigate a situation more carefully. But Kay points out that Soros does not base his investment decisions on intuition but on careful analysis; even the hunch is based on years of laboriously acquired expertise.
Statements such as "Paris grew by muddling through, Brasilia by design; Paris is a great city, Brasilia is not." (p175) confirm that Kay's arguments lack depth. A lot of what people love about Paris are the great boulevards designed by Baron Hausmann. But even if the element of design within Paris was insubstantial, Kay still ignores the time frame. Possibly Paris was not a great city in its first century; evolution takes ages.
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.
I really wanted to like this, because the idea is interesting and I am a big fan of books (and audiobooks) that address these kind of issues. However, there are two key problems - the first is that the person reading the book is dreadful. Perhaps I am spoiled by people like Stephen Fry, David Attenborough, Nigel Planer and Frank Muller, but I expect more than a soulless recitation of the text. I want enthusiasm and a passion for the topic, and that's not there in this audiobook. So on that point, I can't really recommend the audiobook version.
As to the content itself, the title is well picked because much of the argumentation is oblique - not in a good way, just... the arguments he uses to support his points are too tangential, too narrow, or too subjective to really be convincing. Too much is left unsaid, and the context is often lacking. It's full of arguments that are convincing if you look at them in exactly the way the author has presented them, but they don't stand up to real analysis. I don't really want to give examples of this, because even though the book is non-fiction, those are still spoilers. It just didn't convince me in the way I wanted it to, and that's because the points the author makes simply aren't entirely credible.
on 4 June 2011
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. Here's an example to give you a flavour of what I mean, and I picked this page at random - "The achievement of high level objectives, intermediate goals and basic actions needs an oblique approach, based on interactions that value and make use of the parallel objectives, goals and actions of the individuals who are asked to contribute to their realisation." If that gets your juices flowing then you'll be rushing to buy this but if not, trust me, this is the standard of prose in this book. It's one advantage is it's so unutterably dull that it makes great bedtime reading. One page and you're asleep.
I'm not quite sure why I plodded through to the end, but when I did I came across yet more irritation. He compares Paris to Brasilia, the former a great city, compared to the latter, because, he says, Paris has developed "through a process of constant adaptation.... Paris grew by muddling through, Brasilia by design." I assume, rather shockingly, he's never heard of Baron Haussmann, the great urban planner who in the nineteenth century completely transformed Paris to the, um, planned city we see today. If he sits down and plans his next book rather better than he did this one, he might have a bit more success. Which I guess completely contradicts the message of "Obliquity".
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. Having spent several years in my doctoral research on political decision making, I felt he once again picked Lindblom because his point is most amenable to his thesis. Several better explanations of political decision-making have followed Lindblom's and they cover more ground and do so in a more granular fashion than Mr Kay does in this section of the book.
The third section, comprising shorter chapters, explains problem-solving in a complex world using stories from the real world. This was the quickest read in the book yet I found myself feeling dragged through it. Stories from several unconnected walks of life are great for anecdotes and dinner party conversation, but make a book feel like a jigsaw being forced together.
To those given to seeking single labels for people, it is seductive to see Mr Kay as an economist. His wider philosophical grounding and interest is visible in the book as he illustrates his points using examples from history, urban design, football and evolutionary theory amongst others. Yet despite such ambition and possibility, the book is perhaps best described as a "light" read. One gets the feeling that Mr Kay tried to do a Gladwell on the topics of complexity and decision making but did not get far enough.
Usefulness note: The book's length and organisation would make it a good read in a long-haul flight. I'd not recommend it strongly though.
on 28 March 2011
Economist John Kay's central idea is that goals in life can often be accomplished more successfully by taking an indirect, oblique route rather than a direct route. So companies that set out with the direct goal of making money often end up making less money than companies that set out with other goals (e.g. to create world-changing medicines or to inspire their customers). Similarly, people who go about their lives pursuing happiness tend to be less happy than those who have other goals (e.g. to do challenging work, to serve others).
In Part 1 of this slim book (from page 1 to page 55), Kay presents evidence to support his idea of obliquity in the form of entertaining and interesting anecdotes. He compares a couple of famous and successful companies with less successful ones. He looks at how the behaviour of President Roosevelt in the US and Winston Churchill in Britain used oblique approaches to win the Second World War. This section was really enjoyable - if I was rating the book purely on these first 50 or so pages, they would get 4 or 5 stars.
Unfortunately, the book has three parts. Part 2 (from page 59 to page 113) presents Kay's ideas as to why the direct approach may not always work. This was somewhat enjoyable and would have merited 3 or 4 stars. However, Part 3 (from page 117 to page 168) felt convoluted and even unnecessary. In this third part of the book, the premise of obliquity seemed to have run out of steam and I had to work hard to keep reading it until the book's finish.
Given the success of economics-based books Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything and Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance (both of which I enjoyed immensely), I can see why Kay's publisher wanted this book out - i.e. hopefully to catch on the wave of interest in economics-based books. Unfortunately, I don't think this book works terribly well for two reasons.
First of all, Kay writes in a fairly academic fashion. One of his favourite words is `incommensurable' and his sentence construction is sometimes overly long and difficult to follow. I sometimes had to read sentences twice to follow the gist of what he was trying to say.
Secondly though, I don't think Kay's central premise is strong enough to sustain an entire book. The first 55 pages were strong but the rest of the book wasn't quite so strong, with the consequence that my attention began to waver from about the midpoint of the book.
The book isn't all bad though. There were a few snippets of research that I found interesting and the anecdotes told in support of Kay's idea were usually vivid too. I really wanted to like this book more. Sadly, I didn't.
Obliquity is attempting to challenge conventional rationale and hypocrisy of commercial world. There are many examples of how many projects aimed at "obvious" or otherwise "commercial" gain seem to fail in contrast to some other human endeavours which seem to achieve greater results. Some of the examples are interesting, others are a bit quiche. But it's all good food for thought really. The content will be a little dry for those who like to be entertained. This is more of an analytical type of content that requires some degree of concentration. I give 5 stars to this product as it is well presented, narration is both pleasant and clear and it does have some unique psychological appeal.
on 29 January 2012
Yawn. I didn't get much from this. Admittedly the central idea is something I agree with - hence why I picked it up - but there's very little insight beyond that, maybe a few examples, or case studies, from business school. Perhaps it was too much to hope for some sort of psychological underpinning for the reason why indirect methods for acquiring a goal have higher success rates than direct methods.
Anyone with a little bit of life experience, or social experience, and let's face it that will be most people checking out this title on amazon, won't get much from this book.
Every once in a while we need a reminder like this though, so I guess that's one take away.
on 4 May 2010
People should really stop writing books only because they have an idea. The book should have one page and it would be the cover page: Our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly. The End. It is made of pointless rhetorics, states the obvious using anecdotes and irrelevant examples ("Computers don't solve problems the way people solve problems" and "Footballers don't play football like computers would play football"). The man asks wrong questions and tries to come up with 'logical' answers. He also doesn't understand few fundamental truths about functioning of our world (Enron) and he misinterprets historical facts (McNamara and Vietnam War example). He seems not to understand basic mechanisms of modern business and he draws illogical conclusions (Apple / Microsoft example). It is a pseudo-philosophical book about issues that have nothing to do with real problem solution strategies and are not applicable in real life (ICI, chess and English politicians throughout the whole book).
In order to get to the important bits I was skipping small paragraphs, after a while I found myself skipping whole pages. I "read" the book in few hours. Some interesting bits here and there but for someone who reads a lot there isn't much interesting in it.
Reading this book feels like listening to a Monty Pythonian bank accountant at a bus stop telling bystanders about a dream he had last night. You can't really pay attention and you just switch off nodding politely.
on 24 April 2011
I got a feeling of simple satisfaction from reading this book, because it is kind of a conformation of some ideas I partly already believed, and it partly told me things I took pleasure in realising I agreed with. It is not exactly ground breaking in its subject matter, and it could be accused of struggling to stretch such a simple idea into a whole book, but none the less I can think of worse ways to spend a few hours.
The really clever thing about this book is that it is able to appeal to three different sections of the reading public all at once. In other words it is able to cover three bases; of being an economics book, a how to get success in business/politics kind of book, and also a book covering the broader subject of popular philosophy / self help / how to live your life kind of book. £ $ Cha-ching £ $, profitable! When I read it all three angles came to mind, and I even in parts took satisfaction in transplanting myself into high-powered business and political situations and imagined that I might have had the wisdom to take the oblique route.
But essentially I bought this book as an economics book and I would say this book conforms to a trend in economics recently to become penitent, reflective and hesitant. I especially appreciated Kay's own admission or confession about his previous career as a consultant requiring him to manufacture numerical proof to back up a proposed action he had already decided upon. After the retreat from the ultra-confident decade following the fall of communism, and now after unrestrained free market forces caused an economic catastrophe which mainstream economics failed to curtail or predict, economics is suffering a crisis of faith. To caricature the tone of this vein of economic thought, it has moved from saying; "we have all the answers, it is as obvious as A B C", towards saying; "... Ahh ... well ... it is very complicated, we did not know as much as we thought, but we are still mostly right ... and don't worry we are working on the rest". I think this book contributes to this theme, and both this kind of book and the theme itself is not a bad thing to happen.