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Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly by John Kay

Reviewer: Mary C. Murphy*

The commendations on the front and back cover of Obliquity are strong in their praise for the book and its author, the economist John Kay. What is perhaps more interesting however is that the praise comes from a diverse range of readers, including Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, Anthony Seldon, author of a biography of Tony Blair and Stephen Bayley, Architecture and Design correspondent for The Observer.

The breadth and diversity of areas addressed by the author and its clear appeal to a wide range of interests and disciplines makes the book somewhat difficult to categorize. In terms of its style, content and novelty however it can be aptly compared with the work of Malcolm Gladwell (author of The Tipping Point). The central argument of Obliquity is that many goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly – an observation which the author applies to everything from business to warfare and from football to managing forest fires.

Obliquity argues that oblique approaches to achieving goals are often the most successful and it seeks to demonstrate how understanding this concept leads to better decision-making. The book is divided into three parts. The first deals with a series of paradoxes and conundrums including: ‘how the happiest people do not pursue happiness’ and ‘how the wealthiest people are not the most materialistic’. Part two describes the factors that make direct approaches impracticable for so many different problems and part three describes how to achieve an oblique approach to problem solving and decision-making.

The opening chapters are particularly engaging and intriguing. The author utilises a variety of examples to argue that in business, as in many others areas of life, the oblique approach delivers the most successful results. For example, he recounts how: ‘Boeing created the most commercially successful aircraft company, not through love of profit, but through love of planes’ (p. 21). He argues that the singular pursuit of profit is an ill-advised strategic objective, and ultimately fruitless anyway. Instead, he advises that the best route to the achievement of profit is an oblique one, based on the honourable pursuit of what he terms a high-level objective. The analysis is timely, engaging and ultimately hopeful. The use of examples and counter-examples is particularly instructive here. In addition to animating Kay’s argument, they strengthen its appeal and persuasiveness.

In proving why the indirect approach to the achievement of goals is optimal, Kay exposes the limits and complexity of adopting the alternative direct approach. There is a nod to political science here when Kay utilises the work of Charles Lindblom and his seminal article ‘The science of muddling through’. Implicitly, Kay is rejecting the key tenets of rational choice theory, but doing so in ways which encompass more than just the political realm. Here again the argument is persuasive if somewhat laboured. According to the author himself, the book started life as an article in the Financial Times weekend magazine – this may explain why the text is sometimes repetitive and the argument over-stated.

The third part of Obliquity is prescriptive in nature. It attempts to determine how best to apply the principle of obliquity to decision-making and problem-solving. Kay notes that the connection between intentions and outcomes is invariably unpredictable. Relying on an indirect approach which is iterative, adaptive and experimental may, he argues, often produce optimal outcomes. Accepting this, and embracing it, means trusting the merits of a more oblique approach to making decisions. He proposes that Franklin D. Roosevelt was a noteworthy advocate when he urged: ‘Try something. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another [approach]’ (p. 128). This persistent and experimental style of problem-solving and decision-making embodies the essence of Kay’s provocative theory of obliquity.

At the heart of Obliquity is a well-argued and convincing contradiction of rational choice theory – arguably the most influential doctrine in the social sciences for the last 40 years. It is this contradiction which makes Kay’s work especially fascinating and intriguing. While the embrace of an oblique approach to life, politics and business is almost naturally counter-intuitive for many, Kay has produced a strangely compelling case in support of such a view.

This book is unquestionably an interesting and engaging read. The writing style is appealing and enhanced by the use of case studies, anecdotes and graphics. The text is replete with literary and other references which further add to the accessibility and appeal of the work. The target audience is diverse, and justifiably so. There is much here which is worthy of reflection for a wide host of people and professions. Although the reader may instinctively reject its central thesis, Kay has produced a highly valuable and thought-provoking read. Obliquity is a book which the reader is likely dwell on long after the final chapter has been read.