Obliquity

Obliquity: Why Our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly

Author: John Kay

SYNOPSIS

What is the best approach to problem-solving? Are there more effective ways to attain our goals?  Rather than tackle problems head-long, this book advocates the indirect approach. The author argues that direct problem-solving strategies are often impractical and frequently end in failure. This is because most problems have ‘imprecisely defined objectives’ (page 3), with ‘no predictable connections between intentions and outcomes’ (page 9). He also asserts that ‘…the methods of analysis that come naturally to us are oblique…’ (page 65). 

LuMaxArt FS Collection Orange0059. Scott Maxwell on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/lumaxart/2364667079/in/gallery-joaoa-72157625395693880/
LuMaxArt FS Collection Orange0059. Scott Maxwell on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/lumaxart/2364667079/in/gallery-joaoa-72157625395693880/

The author, an economist, describes several features of the direct approach that render it ineffective. Take for example the author’s observation that the direct problem solver needs to assemble all the available information, but the oblique decision maker recognises the limits of his or her knowledge (page 122). The book lists several other impediments to direct problem-solving; an example is the requirement for the problem-solver to confidently specify all the available options and risks associated with the problem (page 67). The author says that these requirements are very difficult to attain.

Solving jigsaw puzzle. Yoel Ben-Avraham on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/epublicist/8718123610
Solving jigsaw puzzle. Yoel Ben-Avraham on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/epublicist/8718123610

The book focuses on two broad types of problems, the attainment of happiness and the acquisition of financial rewards. The running theme throughout the book is the superiority of the oblique approach in both situations. The author graphically illustrates this when he said ‘happiness is not achieved by the pursuit of happiness’, and ‘the most profitable businesses are not the most profit-oriented’ (page 8). The oblique approach also has broader application in social and professional settings, the author saying ‘obliquity is fundamental to our dealings with other people’ (page 165), and ‘there is much obliquity in the expertise of skilled professionals’ (page 167).

Maze Puzzle (Blender). FutUndBiedl on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/61423903@N06/7369580478
Maze Puzzle (Blender). FutUndBiedl on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/61423903@N06/7369580478

The book says the guiding principle of the oblique approach is a focus on higher level objectives (page 40). The author illustrates this by an allegory of ‘the stonemason committed to the glory of God’, who builds a better cathedral than ‘the stonemason who is motivated entirely by the bonuses offered’ (page 87). He goes further to argue that focusing only on direct approaches may be detrimental; he says ‘…the direct pursuit of wealth…tends to damage both the individuals and organisations that seek it’ (pages 34-35), and he illustrates this with examples such as Lehman Brothers.

chess game. liz west on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/calliope/5347237755
chess game. liz west on Flikr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/calliope/5347237755

What does the oblique approach entail? The process begins by first closing the problem, and the author discusses several strategies for doing this in the book. One example is to define the context of the problem, and another is to determine what information to discard or include in the process (pages 100-101). He said the oblique approach requires that ‘goals and actions must constantly be revised’, and he supported this with the example of Franklin Roosevelt who used ‘pragmatic improvisation’ to solve problems which he could neither predict or control (pages 128-129). Using the fox and hedgehog analogy, he says ‘the oblique decision maker, the fox, is not hung up on consistency, and frequently holds contradictory ideas simultaneously’ (page 162).

The book illustrates the utility of the oblique approach across all fields of human endeavour. He referred to oblique scientific discoveries such as the discovery of immunisation and Penicillin by Louis Pasteur and Alexander Fleming respectively; both were pursuing scientific knowledge rather than seeking to make discoveries (pages 54-55). The author quoted the chemist James Black, who discovered several key drugs such as Propranolol, and who said that ‘goals are often best achieved without intending them’ (page xiii). In the business world, the book referred to John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and Bill Gates; they all attained their wealth as indirect outcomes of pursuing their passions (pages 4-6). There were also examples of the consequences of using the direct approach such as of Robert McNamara, the US Defense Secretary who botched the handling of the Vietnam war (pages 92-96).

The book concludes with several tips on oblique decision making. An example is ‘when faced with a task that daunts you… begin by doing something. Choose a small component that seems potentially relevant to the task. While it seems to make sense to plan everything before you start, mostly you can’t…’ (page 175).

OPINION

This book is a refreshing take on decision-making. It defines an approach to problem-solving which embraces uncertainty, and it  gives several examples to support its arguments. This is relevant in today’s world where complex problems thrive, and where expertise is wrongly defined by the direct approach. It is a well-written and insightful book, and the author’s arguments are convincing.

OVERALL ASSESSMENT

The author discusses a natural decision-making process and defines its rules and restrictions. The approach applies to all fields of human endeavour, including healthcare, and I recommend it to all doctors.

BOOK DETAILS
  • Publisher, place and year: Profile Books, London, 2010
  • Number of chapters: 21
  • Number of Pages: 210
  • ISBN: 978-184668-2896
  • Price: £8.99
  • Rating: 5 stars

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