The Dickinson quotation suggests -- as does the subtitle of John Kay's book -- that there are situations in which goals are best achieved indirectly. I agree with him: "If people are predictably irrational, perhaps they are not irrational at all. Perhaps the fault lies not with the world but with our concept of irrationality. Perhaps we should think differently about how we really make decisions and solve problems. Perhaps we should recognize the obliquity, and inevitability, of obliquity." In fact, why be oblique on this point? We SHOULD re-think how we think...we SHOULD recognize what we have previously missed or ignored.
This is precisely what Kay has in mind when observing, "An oblique approach recognizes that what we want from a home, or a community, has many elements. We will never succeed in fully specifying what they are, and to the extent that we do, we discover that they are often incompatible and inconsistent." This is one of his most important points: There are specific limits to what a direct approach can resolve; however, if there is a complicated question to answer, a complicated problem to solve, or a complicated task to completed, only an oblique approach can succeed. Moreover, with rare exception, several persons must be involved. The approach must be oblique because the process will be one of continuous discovery and adaptation, application and modification, etc.
Consider the great teams in history such as the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, the animators who produced a series of classics such as Snow White and Bambi, and the engineers employed by Lockheed at its Skunk Works. All of the members of a team know more, can do more, and do it better than any one member can. Here's what Kay has to say about all this: "Obliquity is the best approach whenever complex systems evolve in an uncertain environment and whenever the effect of our actions depends on the way in which others respond to them...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 word of politics and business today is afflicted by many hedgehogs, men and women who mistakenly believe the world is like that." Oh that it were.
Kay clearly explains the "what" of obliquity but devotes most of his attention to WHY and/or HOW. More specifically,
In Part One:
o How the happiest people do not pursue happiness
o The most profitable companies are not the most profit oriented
o The wealthiest people are not the most materialistic
o The means help us to discover the ends
o Obliquity is relevant to many aspects of our lives
In Part Two:
o Oblique approaches succeed
o There is usually more than one answer to a problem
o The Outcome of what we do depends on how we do it
o The world is too complex for directness to be direct
o We rarely know enough about the nature of our problems
o Models are imperfect
In Part Three:
o We mistakenly infer design from the outcome
o We have less freedom of choice than we think
o Decision makers recognize the limits of their knowledge
o Adaptation is smarter than we are
o We know more than we can tell
o Complex outcomes are achieved without knowledge of an overall purpose
o It is more important to be right than to be consistent
o Spurious rationality is often confused with good decision making
The development of the concepts in this book followed an oblique path from drafts that resulted in an article published in the Financial Times (January 17, 2004). The process continued during John Kay's subsequent journey of continuous discovery and adaptation, application and modification, etc. The result is this book, first published in 2010. No brief commentary such as mine can possibly do full justice to the quality of information, insights, and counsel he provides but I hope that I have at least indicated why I think so highly of Obliquity. If you want to put some white caps on your gray matter, look no further.
on 16 April 2014
Kay's thesis is that obliquity is an important concept. We achieve some of our goals obliquely (e.g. happiness). We reason obliquely (businesses don't derive their medium and low level actions from a high level goal of 'maximising profit' and if they do, they are generally in trouble). So it's best to shape the world, or our world, as we go, accepting that there are many incommensurable values out there, and not trying to replay cities or forests or whatever it may be from first principles because the likelihood is that we will be missing something important if we go about things that way. This is illustrated by a very wide range of examples, drawn occasionally from personal experience (using the Tube to get from Paddington to Hyde Park when walking would be quicker) but generally from a wide and well digested range of reading.
I was a little disappointed by the experience in reading this, despite the elegance of the writing and the extent of the reading list Kay has mastered. I felt it did not add a great deal to my knowledge of how the world works. It always seemed to be on the verge of this, but only tipped over into being really useful in his defence of 'muddling through' as a way of taking decisions (at least for me!)
Kay starts the book by saying he used to sell economic models and then realised that his clients used them to justify decisions, not to take them. And indeed that he used them in the same way himself. One book he may not have read, but that might offer a strong explanation of this is Jonathan Haidt's book The Right Mind. Haidt suggests that we are all the time with our conscious minds acting like a lawyer, looking for the best justification of what we have done. But that there is another whole system in the human being that actually takes the decisions….Kay sort of hints at this idea - but does not develop it. Haidt does. That is probably because Kay is not an experimental psychologist...
We live in a world where increasingly we believe that technology will answer our problems, and even our prayers. With sufficient effort, money and computing power, we can find the solution to any problem, and where we don’t it’s simply that we applied Insufficient effort, money and computing power and must try harder next time. The result is an unstoppable flow of instant solutions each attempting to address the problems created by its predecessor.
In this well-written and thoughtful book John Kay sets out why, in the real world, direct solutions are seldom the ones that work and how real change is approached not directly, but obliquely.
The book is divided into three sections. In the first Kay cites instances of oblique decision making in all aspects of our everyday lives. Section two explains why this is the case and how direct approaches are simply not possible. In section three he sets out guidance on how obliquity can be applied effectively.
This book is not against the application of scientific methods, nor an advocate for decision making based on intuition. Rather it recognises the true nature of the interconnected world and the impossibility of calculating the consequences of our actions in advance of those actions being made. It offers a well-reasoned argument for an alternative that will feel familiar to us in our everyday lives, but is rare in decision making elsewhere.
The following paragraphs from the book illustrate the approach:-
“In business, in politics and in our personal lives we do not solve problems directly. The objectives we manage are multiple, incommensurable and partly incompatible. The consequences of what we do depend on responses, both natural and human, that we cannot predict. The systems we try to manage are too complex for us to fully understand. We never have the information about the problem, or the future we face, that we might wish for.”
“But the idea that moral algebra is really the right way to make decisions, even if we eventually fail to use it, is deeply ingrained. So we tell ourselves that we are really using moral algebra when our real decision making process is oblique – we play Franklin’s Gambit. Franklin’s Gambit is perhaps the most common fault in decision making. – and particularly in public decision making – today. There is an appearance of describing objectives, evaluating options, reviewing evidence. But it is a sham. The objectives are dictated by the conclusions, the options presented so as to make the favoured course look attractive, the data selected to favour the desired result. Real alternatives are not assessed rigorously: policy-based evidence supplants evidence-based policy.”
This is a thought provoking book that I recommend to anyone trying to make sense of how decision making works or more often doesn’t work.
on 11 June 2011
I fully agree with the other reviewers. The book is centered around one main idea which is somewhat vacuous and backed by a series of anecdotal evidences. The idea is that goals in life can often be accomplished more successfully by taking an indirect, oblique route rather than a direct route.
However, I derived two benefits from this book:
1. The exposition of a pragmatic way to conduct one's life:
High-level objectives and Values provide a sense of direction
Define short-term goals congruent with the above; they should be clear enough to apply the direct method
Step back and reflect
Modify or accomplish goals
Review high-level objectives and values
2. Several interesting sentences:
"Objectives, goals, states and actions evolve together because learning about the nature of high-level goals is a never-ending process."
"The job of the artist or the poet or the educator or the business person is not just to paint what we want to see, write what we want to read or hear, teach what we want to learn or produce what we want to buy. their role is to interpret the underlying high-level objectives that we seek from art, poetry, education, or goods and services more fully than we could ourselves articulate them. Success in recasting problems to achieve our objectives more effectively than we had conceived distinguishes the great from the merely competent ad demonstrates why the direct approach is so often banal."
"Our objectives are typically imprecise and multi-faceted, and change as we work on them, and properly so. Our decisions depend on the responses of others and on what we anticipate those responses will be. The world is complex, imperfectly known, and our knowledge of it is incomplete, and these things will remain true however much we learn and however much we analyze it."
"The more we practice, the better our judgements."
"Trial and error is not a random process; nor is it undirected reaction to events. One learns through a process of adaptation."
When this audio title arrived I made a huge mistake and thought I could listen to it in the car when traveling with my young family - bad move! It sounded boring to my poor ears and I promptly switched to the radio so that the family could find interest and be quiet. Anyway it was some four weeks before I decided to try again and this time in the car and on my own. Well this was an entirely different picture, my normally traffic locked journey to the office went from being too long and dreary to being too short and in fact I was so engrossed in this highly entertaining and breathtakingly broad view of reaching objectives that I don't actually remember the features of the journey at all - whoops, sorry officer!
What was the difference in the two attempts at listening? Essentially the answer lies in the notion of the dual aspects of my personality; on the one hand the dusty somewhat boring academic type interested in minutiae and often useless facts, was fascinated by the sheer volume of really interesting ideas about how we as a species reach objectives by various means and for a variety motivational purposes. The other part of me, the dad and dutiful fun loving husband, has to tone down that other aspect in order to stay married, as well as free from derisory sniggers behind my back originating from the kids and their many friends. So in summary it is a damned good read or in this case listen, and the businessman looking for new inspiration in achieving new direction or indeed the self professed nerd (have to admit it that's me), will both love it. Buy it now and make sure you are safely alone or with the like minded as you immerse yourself.
This is a wide-ranging 6 CD audio book.John Kay gives examples of no pain-no gain such as climbing a mountain or bringing up kids. There are low spots, but hitting the summit or developing a happy child are great highs in the journey. Boeing love making planes and their profits were just one facet of their plane making passion. Merck make chemicals for people -as do Johnson & Johnson - the profits will flow from this.Sam Walton of WAL-MART still drives a pick up truck. Yes, he's rich as are Trump and Gates, but they were not obsessed by making more and more money. Now Gates is giving a lot of his wealth away. Kay talks about looking at problems differently. He quotes Benjamin Franklin who said managers often would come up with a model AFTER the outcome. He says that there comes a time when re-engineering a system is no longer viable -like a product life cycle. Google and Apple use a clean sheet and use "obliquity" to try new stuff out. How do you tackle a new complex problem? Start with a bit of it and work your way around -this is the "elephant burger" model to me. How did Picasso paint, Darwin "discover" or Beckham put that curl on the ball? Can we all do it? It took them years of practice / mistakes / adjusting -just like a continual feedback loop to me. Kay mentions the cross Canada rail route that first went through a valley, only to be snowed in -until being replaced by a tunnel right through the mountain. To me this is not obliqueness, but evolution, as the volume of traffic grew. I have got an MBA and I found the "Obliquity" Audio CD was a little bit the "same old same old". Another Holy Grail that didn't tell me anything new. It does score highly on the HISTORY / EVOLUTION of thinking from the ancient Greeks to the groupthink of the banks in the current recession, who never questioned their own flawed models. In that the audio CD is worth a listen.
Here is that well-known military strategy idea developed by Capt. Liddell Hart after the First World War -- "the indirect approach" -- given an application to the world of big business. Author John Kay postulates that a business that makes a lot of money probably did not do so by having an objective of making money! He gives us many examples of businesses that became great by doing something exceptionally well, and if you can do that, then profits, a valuable company, and satisfied customers, employees, and shareholders will all follow. That's indirectness, or obliquity, as Kay calls it.
On the other hand, companies who set out to just milk money or, worse, "increase shareholder value" often come a cropper. I have worked for both kinds of company, and also for companies that started with honest values and changed to go directly for money, so I really appreciate the soundness of Kay's argument.
When you listen to these long, long, CDs in the car, keep the air-con turned up, or you might drift off to sleep. Reader Ric Jerrom is perfectly clear, but a bit flat, and sometimes sounds as if he does not understand the text. I certainly wish I had the book rather than these CDs.
By the way, that Indirect Approach really does work. It worked beautifully for the Germans in several WW II battles, for the British in the Falklands War, for the USA in the 1990 Gulf War, and on many other occasions. Ignore the indirect approach and you end up with Arnhem . . . or Enron. Maybe the best thing to do is read Liddell Hart's book on Strategy, which you can buy on Amazon! The application to business is not hard to work out for yourself.
Professor John Kay, an economist who has worked in academia, in economic consultancy and as a director of various financial sector companies, contrasts what he calls Franklin's Rule with Franklin's Gambit, (after then American founding father and polymath, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin's Rule was the idea that even issues of fine judgement might be tackled by writing down "Pros and Cons" for a particular issue, attempting, by "moral algebra", to come to a rational decision as to the best course of action. Franklin's Gambit, by contrast, was his observation that most decisions of this nature are made because they feel right, and that we are able to come up with a rational justification to support pretty much any option that we've chosen. The latter "oblique" approach isn't a mistake, Kay argues - it's often better to rely on experience and feelings to arrive at a good (but not necessarily optimal) decision.
The Rule is an example of the direct approach to problem solving, and Kay tells us that it is only rarely appropriate. Robert McNamara, who was part of the team of whizz kids that first developed highly quantitative Operations Research (OR) techniques, found these to be highly effective in improving military logistics in WW2. Sadly his attempt to use OR techniques to direct an entire war - Vietnam - was disastrously counterproductive. The difference was that logistics is an area where all of the relevant factors may be identified, quantified and ranked, and therefore the direct, rational, quantitative approach can find an optimum solution. A whole war, and indeed business and many other fields of human endeavour, cannot be analysed in such a way, and therefore what Kay calls the oblique approach - which is intuitive, instinctive, emotionally based, subtle, qualitative - is not only appropriate but unavoidable. We deceive ourselves, Kay tells us, when we apply Franklin's Gambit to rationalise a decision so made, if we allow ourselves or others to believe that the decision was made on a purely logical and rational basis.
This is an interesting observation, and Professor Kay's many examples from many fields of human endeavour are illuminating. I'm not sure, however, that the idea that decisions are often made emotionally rather than rationally is itself a novel idea. This distinction, as I think about it, is one that underlies a principal difference between management consultancy (rational = direct) and business coaching (emotional = oblique). I've listened to the book twice though now, in the car - in my view that's the one great advantage of audio books, but not the best environment to concentrate on abstract arguments! So it may be that I've missed it, but what I feel I haven't got from the book, but was hoping for, are new insights into how you actively apply the oblique approach to making better decisions. It's one thing, for example, to say that it's sometimes those companies that don't pursue profit as their #1 priority that make the highest and most consistent profits in the long term, but John Kay doesn't address the issue of how you go about choosing an oblique target.
I enjoyed listening to Ric Jerrom reading the book. He gamely attempted a slightly different accent for each of the many quotations that Kay had sprinkled throughout the book, although every now and again - especially with the ones by non British and Americans - he seemed to start off reading in character then give up half way. My one criticism of the production of this book - and it is probably the longest audio book that I have listened to, and on an abstract subject at that, is that it would have been much easier to dip back into it - and to write this review - if the publishers had provided a list of chapter headings and perhaps their principal content.
In summary, Kay's ideas are interesting if not actually revolutionary, and this is a good audio book and one I can recommend, but I think I might have preferred to read these arguments rather than listen to them.
I want to take a very direct approach to reviewing this book. This is because writing a book review is a well contained, finite task.
But this direct approach does not work well on larger scale tasks and goals. And that is Kay's key point in this book- the direct approach will work reasonably across short range finite tasks, but most of our real goals and desires are complex, and far from clearly defined. They have to be approached indirectly, often in small steps, and with some awareness that what we think we want may not actually be what we want when we get somewhere near it. We may only discover our true goal by starting out in its general direction, and refining our criteria for success as we go along. Kay sees true problem solving as humble, adaptive and iterative, and accepting of the risk of events changing everything. It sees consistency as an unusual and possibly maladaptive behaviour.
He is largely writing against direct problem solving, and against the arrogance of one person claiming to be able to encompass everyone's needs within his scheme. So for example the folly of Le Corbusier in wanting to design "a machine for living", or economists being disappointed when the subjects of their experiments failed to live up to their models of their behaviour, and the idiocies of planned economies are well exposed. To some extent Kay is apologising for his earlier life when he was a consultant with a model.
The affinity between the iterative adaptation described by Why Evolution is True evolution in biology and the iterative adaptations made by the multiple actors in a free market is well drawn. In this Kay is drawing on his useful previous work in The Truth About Markets : Why Some Countries are Rich and Others Remain Poor To some extent evolution is an economic model about allocation of scarce resources applied in biology. The basic message of Darwin's "natural selection" and Adam Smith's "invisible hand" is that adaptation is smarter than design in achieving viable organisations and organisms.
Kay describes goal achievement at three levels, namely high level objectives, intermediate states and basic actions. He uses the example of three stonemasons building a cathedral. When asked what they are doing one replies, "I am cutting this stone to shape", the second says, "I am building a great cathedral" and the third, "I am working for the glory of God." All three are working together towards the same end, but their motivations and perceptions of their work may well be very different.
I liked this book. It is a good reminder of the problems of excessive problem solving, and the problems of our models of reality clouding our view of that reality. He apologises for his and other economists past over reliance on models, and for their late realisation that the people were not going to change to fit the economist's models. You might be feeling smug that you are not an economist at this point but it is likely that we all have our own similar versions of such absurdity.
Ackoff Ackoff's Best: His Classic Writings on Management drew a distinction between a "mess" and a "problem." He recommended simplifying messes into problems. Against this view Kay points out that most of the time the mess is the reality, and that simplifying it into problems often distorts it rather than helps solve it. And yet we have to try and make sense of everything. Kay in this book warns us of the risk of trying to make too much sense out of everything, and shows how we can render our senseless by our efforts.
In the end I think there is a balance to be struck between the oblique approach described by Kay in this book, and the more direct approaches to goal achievement written by other authors. This book does us a great favour by describing the oblique approach well, and exposing many of the flaws of the direct approaches. The book is well written, short and has many worthwhile ideas in it to consider. I can recommend it to those of us who are working on goals and projects whether personally or professionally.
(I have listened to the audio- but I much preferred reading the book.)
More and more, we find ourselves subjected to scrutiny and measurement. Analysts and consultants are paid huge sums to "improve" things and yet, very often the changes they recommend mean at best, marginal improvement is achieved and at worst, disaster ensues.
The problem is that though we are able to take a great deal of data and use it to make decisions, we are unable to use ALL the necessary information regarding ALL the possible factors that could have an outcome on the result. So despite "experts" being paid huge sums of money to predict the housing markets, the stock markets, and the currency markets, the best they can do is try and look for patterns that have already previosuly happened. The present financial crisis is a good example of a worldwide league of experts who have signally failed.
Sometimes, the right result is achieved by simply trying to achieve the right result, not by working out HOW to achieve the right result. The man who sits down and has a good think about how best to escape the bear heading his way is unlikely to be more successful at escape than the man who simply runs away in whatever direction presents itself. The physicist who produces the complex formula precisely describing the ballistic trajectory of the dart in flight, is in reality far less able to hit the board accurately than Phil Taylor, who might struggle to finish a Sudoku puzzle. Skill and judgement are more important in the real world than collating data and plotting Excel graphs.
I found this CD book fascinating and inspiring. If you enjoy lateral-thinking, I think you will enjoy it too. Don't be discouraged by the first part of CD1, where the author sets the scene a little too self-indulgently, keep listening. You'll find when the author does hit his stride, you'll be matching him step for step on an interesting trail of thought.