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3.0 out of 5 stars A valiant but ultimately failed attempt to do a Gladwell, 15 April 2010
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This review is from: Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly (Hardcover)
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.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 15 Apr 2010 21:22:00 BDT
Last edited by the author on 15 Apr 2010 21:22:39 BDT
The article referred to here - Political ideas need proper testing By Tim Harford Published: March 17 2010 23:43 - makes no reference to Kay's book. Perhaps this reference has been removed in the online edition.

In reply to an earlier post on 16 Apr 2010 10:14:06 BDT
S. Yogendra says:
You are right. The article does not. I apologise if the review reads like I imply it does. Harford's approach/ argument in the said article is antithetical to Mr Kay's proposition in the book, which Harford has described as "persuasive". I started reading the book and came across the article roughly at the same time; the disconnect was jarring. Perhaps I am being naive and that is how the book cover blurb game is played! One doesn't have to be personally persuaded by anything to call it "persuasive". Thanks.
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