Book Report: Obliquity


ObliquityIn general, oblique approaches recognize that complex objectives tend to be imprecisely defined and contain many elements that are not necessarily or obviously compatible with each other, and that we learn about the nature of the objectives and the means of achieving them during a process of experiment and discovery. Oblique approaches often step backwards to move forwards.” (Obliquity – p3-4
)

Title: Obliquity – Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly

Author: John Kay

Publisher: Profile Books

Publication Date: 2010

Origin: I’m fairly certain that I saw and picked up Obliquity on a trip through Heathrow.

Summary: In Obliquity, John Kay (an economist of some stature) explains why the right path is often less obvious and frequently unpredictable (in the literal sense of not being able to predict it). In a nutshell, the world is a complicated place and things typically cannot be perfectly defined; additionally, our actions lead to changes in our environment, and we usually have little control over that environment, so there are many unknowns.

He splits the book into three parts to introduce his theory, build his argument, and present his advice:

  • Part One: The oblique world – how obliquity is all around us
  • Part Two: The need for obliquity – why we often can’t solve problems directly
  • Part Three: Coping with obliquity – how to solve problems in a complex world

Kay concludes that “Obliquity is the best approach whenever complex systems evolve in an uncertain environment and whenever the effect of our actions depends on the ways in which others respond to them.

My Take: I read Obliquity several years ago, immediately upon purchase. I recall enjoying it, but didn’t think it was anything special…perhaps because the ideas seemed to jive with my own take on life. Then I basically forgot about it. However, Lessons from the Top made a brief, very favourable reference to Obliquity and that rekindled my interest in giving it a second read in my new note-taking manner; I’m glad that I did so, as my experiences managing and being involved in increasingly complex projects these last few years has made it pretty clear that not everyone shares the outlook that sometimes things can’t be planned perfectly and sometimes things don’t lend themselves well to perfect measurement. By reading this book, I’ve (1) reaffirmed that I’m not delusional, and (2) developed some pretty sound evidence to use when I’m confronted with oversimplification where it doesn’t belong.

Read This Book If: You want to understand why best-laid plans sometimes don’t work out, or if you’re in an environment where people constantly over-simplify and seem to fail to grasp the complexity of situations and projects.

Related Posts:

Notes and Quotes:

Preface

  • pxi introduces Franklin’s Gambit: “so convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one had a mind to do.” – Benjamin Franklin. This passage, and others later in the book, led to Justifying our Actions with Franklin’s Gambit.
  • p3-4 explains the essence of an oblique approach: “In general, oblique approaches recognize that complex objectives tend to be imprecisely defined and contain many elements that are not necessarily or obviously compatible with each other, and that we learn about the nature of the objectives and the means of achieving them during a process of experiment and discovery. Oblique approaches often step backwards to move forwards.”
  • p8: “The environment – social, commercial, natural – in which we operate changes over time and as we interact with it. Our knowledge of that complex environment is necessarily piecemeal and imperfect. And so objectives are generally best accomplished obliquely rather than directly.”
  • I really like this quote, from p9…too often we are fooled into thinking we have, or can even possibly attain, perfect information: “Effective decision-makers are distinguished not so much by the superior extent of their knowledge as by their recognition of its limitations.”

“Effective decision-makers are distinguished not so much by the superior extent of their knowledge as by their recognition of its limitations.”

Part One: The oblique world – how obliquity is all around us

  • Chapter three (The profit-seeking paradox: how the most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented) led me to write The false strategy of pursuing shareholder value
  • I’ve always aspired to be philanthropic, even on my own modest scale, so this quote on p29 stood out: “The man who dies rich thus dies disgraced.” – Andrew Carnegie. Kay introduced the quote with “Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish-born steel magnate and contemporary of Rockefeller, applied the same determination to giving away his fortune that he applied to building it.”
  • More about wealth and profit, p34-35: “But the direct pursuit of wealth, whether as an end in itself or for the possessions it brings, tends to damage both the individuals and the organisations that seek it.” Perhaps it’s time to remind all of you readers that John Kay is an economist, not a communist.
  • A potential reason for the failure of profit-focused companies, p36-37: “The common feature of every one of these companies is that very large amounts of money were made by individuals in them while the business itself ultimately failed. A corporate culture that extols greed is, in the end, unable to protect itself against its own employees.”
  • The chapter Objectives, goals and actions: how the means help us discover the end led to Lessons from three stonemasons and The pursuit of eudaimonia
  • p50: “The oblique solution of complex problems is a matter of managing the interrelationships between the interpretation of high-level objectives, the realisation of intermediate states and goals, and the performance of basic actions. Such skillful interpretation is required in even the simplest problem.”

“The oblique solution of complex problems is a matter of managing the interrelationships between the interpretation of high-level objectives, the realisation of intermediate states and goals, and the performance of basic actions. Such skillful interpretation is required in even the simplest problem.”

Part Two: The need for obliquity – why we often can’t solve problems directly

  • p62: “Obliquity is a process of experiment and discovery. Successes and failures and the expansion of knowledge lead to reassessment of our objectives and goals and the actions that result.”
  • Relating a part of Marks and Spencer’s history to some other examples: “As at ICI and Boeing, the oblique approach built shareholder value, the direct approach destroyed it.”
  • p86 talks about Goodhart’s Law (“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”), and reminds me of two of my own posts: When metrics are mistakes: common pitfalls and how to avoid them and Big Data! Metrics! Analytics!…a cautionary tale from the world of baseball
  • It’s always driven me nuts when people think a number is by definition superior to a qualitative assessment, p93: “The mistake common to both processes is the belief that a number based on the flimsiest of data is better than a qualitative, and necessarily subjective, judgement.”
  • Here’s an exercise for readers: guess to which military quagmire this quote from p96 is in reference! “We misjudged then – as we have since – the geopolitical intentions of our adversaries […] we viewed the people and leaders of ______ in terms of our own experience […] our misjudgement of friend and foe alike reflected our profound ignorance of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area, and the personalities and habits of their leaders.” Iraq? Afghanistan? Nope! The blank is “South Vietnam” and this quote is from Robert McNamara.
  • Chapter 11 led me to write Incompleteness and problem solving
  • p108: “When new data arrives…we always have the problem of whether to treat it as new data about the parameters of the model or new data about the relevance of the model.”
  • p109-110, something to keep in mind whenever anyone from finance talks to you about risk and track records: “One thing we know with certainty about the banks, insurance companies and hedge funds that compete for our funds is that they did not go bust in the period from which their historic data is drawn.” I think I see a black swan on the horizon…

“When new data arrives…we always have the problem of whether to treat it as new data about the parameters of the model or new data about the relevance of the model.”

Part Three: Coping with obliquity – how to solve problems in a complex world

  • Plus, history’s written by the winners, and they probably tell the story a little bit differently…p118: “We incline to see history through the lives of great men. That inclination blinds us to the real complexity of politics, business and finance. So we find intentionality and design where there is only chance and improvisation; directness where there is obliquity.”
  • Look, I think business plans are important, but I think we often fool ourselves in a very uncertain world. Franklin’s Gambit applies here, too. p121: “ICI might have made calculations in the 1950s that estimated the market capitalization its pharmaceutical division could have achieved by the year 2000. The company could then have put that number into a discounted cash-flow calculation to estimate a return on the company’s early investment in its pharmaceutical business. I would have been delighted to build that model for them. But no one would or should have taken that calculation seriously.”
  • p124: “Oblique decision makers and problem solvers understand that the connection of intention and outcome is often not apparent either in prospect or retrospect. Hindsight colours our interpretations of events and history – and yet even with hindsight we often do not really understand either causes or outcomes.”
  • Another one for the Winston Churchill pile, from p124: “It is not given to human beings – happily for them, otherwise life would be intolerable – to foresee or predict to any large extent the unfolding of events. In one phase men seem to have been right, in another they seem to have been wrong. Then again, a few years later, when the perspective of time has lengthened, all stands in a different setting. There is a new proportion. There is another scale of values. History with its flickering lamp stumbles along the trail of the past, trying to reconstruct its scenes, to revive its echoes.”
  • p128: “The most successful twentieth-century US president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, understood very well that goals and actions must constantly be revised if high-level objectives are to be achieved. Roosevelt described his approach as one of ‘bold, persistent experimentation’. ‘Try something,’ Roosevelt went on. ‘If it fails, admit it frankly, and try another.'”
  • So, don’t get stuck on a single approach, p128: “Roosevelt’s achievement was based on combining a strong general sense of high-level objectives with an equally marked absence of commitment to any specific intermediate or basic goals or actions.”
  • p128: “Roosevelt is admired today because he achieved these high-level objectives, but he did so through pragmatic improvisation in the face of circumstances that neither he nor his outstanding advisers could predict or control.”
  • Man, I really need to get around to reading Team of Rivals; p129: “Roosevelt, like Lincoln before him, understood that the scope of his authority was inescapably limited by the imprecision of his objectives, the complexity of his environment, the unpredictability of the reactions of others, and the open-ended nature of the problems he faced. All these factors mean that even the most powerful men in the world must proceed by choosing opportunistically from a narrow range of options.”

“Roosevelt’s achievement was based on combining a strong general sense of high-level objectives with an equally marked absence of commitment to any specific intermediate or basic goals or actions. Roosevelt is admired today because he achieved these high-level objectives, but he did so through pragmatic improvisation in the face of circumstances that neither he nor his outstanding advisers could predict or control.”

  • This quote from p135, and some coincidental developments in my life, led me write The Curse of Knowledge: “…they strive towards answers that were formed in their minds even before they encountered the problem.”
  • p139: “If there were a one-line explanation of the power of obliquity, it would be: ‘Evolution is smarter than you are.'”
  • p141: “In business, in politics and in our personal lives, we do not often 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. Satisfactory responses in these situations are the result of action, but not the execution of design. These outcomes, achieved obliquely, are the result of iteration and adaptation, experiment and discovery.”
  • p146, relating to augmenting rules-based approaches with experiential knowledge (for instance, learning the rules of being a paramedic or firefighter and then getting even better at those occupations based on on-the-job experiences that cause you to tweak the rules): “The key point is that only when you know the rules so well that they are second nature can you do without them. When you have learned the direct solution, you begin to learn more oblique approaches.”
  • Ha, silly economists and their reliance upon Homo economicus, p149: “A well-known joke tells of the economist in the wilderness who, when he sees a bear approaching, pulls out his computer and begins to calculate his optimal strategy. His colleague, appalled, says: ‘we don’t have time for that!’ ‘Don’t worry,’ replies the economist smugly, ‘the bear has to work out an optimal strategy too.’ Behind the joke lies a deeply serious point. the bear gains a decisive advantage by not suffering the illusion that the approach based on calculation might work.”
  • p161, from F. Scott Fitzgerald: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald

  • In favour of letting experts do their job, and not questioning everything all the time, p168: “By lumping a bundle of things together under the headings of instinct and intuition, and contrasting them with a particular kind of rationality, by failing to acknowledge the central role that tacit knowledge plays in everyday human activities, we not only fail to recognize how good judgements are arrived at and good decisions made, we open the door to much unscientific nonsense, and we have. If we were to insist that Beckham give an account of why he proposed to kick the ball in that particular way before he was allowed to do so, we would quickly lose faith in him. Fortunately, we don”t have the time. But this demand for explanation is what we do when faced with major decisions in business, politics and finance.”
  • Sometimes things don’t work out when they should, and they do when they shouldn’t, p172: “In a necessarily uncertain world, a good decision doesn’t necessarily lead to a good outcome, and a good outcome doesn’t necessarily imply a good decision or a capable decision maker.”
  • p173: “It is hard to overstate the damage done in the recent past by people who thought they knew more about the world than they really did.”

“It is hard to overstate the damage done in the recent past by people who thought they knew more about the world than they really did.”

  • Not a bad bit of advice, and I’ve heard it stated before as “action leads to clarity”, p175: “When faced with a task that daunts you, a project that you find difficult, begin by doing something.”
  • p176: “To fit the world into a single model or narrative fails to acknowledge the universality of uncertainty and complexity.”
  • p179, in conclusion: “Obliquity is the best approach whenever complex systems evolve in an uncertain environment and whenever the effect of our actions depends on the ways in which others respond to them. There is a role for carrots and sticks, but to rely on carrots and sticks alone is effective only when we employ donkeys and we are sure exactly what we want the donkeys to do. Directness is appropriate only when the environment is stable, and objectives are one-dimensional and transparent, and it is then possible to determine when and whether goals have been achieved. And only then.”
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Posted in Books, Everything, Leadership, Management
16 comments on “Book Report: Obliquity
  1. […] this point, I’ll give a brief shout-out to Obliquity, a great book that examines how to move forward in an ever-changing world filled with imperfect […]

  2. […] on adaptive planning vs. strategic planning (very reminiscent of Obliquity): “The opposite of traditional strategic planning is adaptive planning. Rather than saying, […]

  3. […] must be considered in the long term, in the larger context of the wider organization. Of course, I can’t perfectly anticipate the future, but I can feel pretty secure in some broad points and […]

  4. […] again, I’m reminded of Obliquity (and, in fact, Obliquity uses Vietnam as an example); p156: “But as with the history of […]

  5. […] don’t want to make the folly of over-planning in a complex world, but I do prefer to execute strategically rather than tactically. Executing to your own plan (while […]

  6. […] Obliquity – Why Our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly (John Kay) […]

  7. […] next part, from page 109, reminded me a bit of Obliquity, but explains how to deal with the reality of uncertainty: “Sometimes Gen Yers resist […]

  8. […] the quote from Obliquity, “Evolution is smarter than you are”? Well, it applies here; p176: “‘Just […]

  9. […] came upon that quote from the preface of the book Obliquity, by John Kay. Kay introduces the Franklin quote by relating that: “For over ten years, I […]

  10. […] the book Obliquity, John Kay talks of people who “strive towards answers that were formed in their mind even […]

  11. […] in Obliquity, John Kay devotes an entire chapter to examining why profit often evades those who seek it. This […]

  12. […] subtitle of John Kay’s book Obliquity is Why Our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly. In an earlier post I relayed his findings about […]

  13. […] Did you ever notice that to solve most real-world problems of any complexity, we have to find ways to simplify the situation? Well, economist John Kay noticed, and included a chapter on the subject in his great little book Obliquity. […]

  14. […] For instance, in a few locations, Lessons from the Top quotes from John Kay‘s book Obliquity, which I read a couple of years ago (it’s silly, but I always get a little kick when all the […]

  15. […] Prior to the meeting, I shared two pieces of (hopefully) thought-provoking material. One was a slightly distilled version of my post on The Golden Rule of Leadership, which relates objectives to strategies and to tactics, and touches on some common mistakes of leadership. The other was a story from the book Obliquity: […]

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