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Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly Hardcover – April 14, 2011
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Obliquity rests on the argument that the world is too complex, dynamic and ever changing to control in the way that most business leaders think. Leaders want direct action - raise profits, or enter new markets - that are often lead to failure for the simple reason that they are too direct. In place of directly pursuing goals, Kay recommends leaders choose to obliquity.
Obliquity describes the process of achieving complex objectives indirectly. Things cannot be understood well enough or remain stable long enough for a direct plan to work. The central idea of the book can be summed up
"If you are clear about your high-level goals and knowledgeable enough about the systems their achievement depends on, then you can solve problems in a direct way. But goals are often vague, interactions unpredictable, complex extensive, problem descriptions incomplete, the environment uncertain. That is where obliquity comes into play."
Kay's book concentrates on discussing the different aspects of an indirect approach and the relative inability of pre-planned and controlled solutions to lead to results. Kay covers different aspects of this issue through a series of focused chapters. The discussion tends toward an academic view. Because of this, I would recommend reading the book a particular way:
Chapter 1 -- Obliquity - why are objectives are often best pursued directly.
Chapter 18 - Order without design
Chapter 19 - Very well then, I contradict myself
Chapter 20 - Dodgy dossiers
Then I would read the book from chapter 2 through chapter 17.
The book positions itself as a business book, but it is more of a study and observations concerning the nature of managing in an environment of complex systems. This book is in the vain of Nicholas Taleb's "Black Swan." Business readers will find the material indirect and presented in a way that requires greater reflection before it can be put into practice.
Overall this book is recommended for readers who want to study the nature of action, ideas and complex systems. Readers who favor a discussion based and thought-based argument will find this book appealing. Less so for people who are looking for new ideas on how to lead and reach goals in a complex environment.
> Obliquity and the idea that goals in a complex world are best achieved indirectly are interesting and thought provoking. Kay's presentation and argument of these points in straight forward language and examples. He covers a range of topics and angles concerning this central idea.
> The connection between the type and level of complexity we face in the modern world and the ways in which we pursue goals was helpful at helping to redefine the fundamentals of leadership and action.
> Franklin's Gambit was a plus and gave me a new tool to think about what is going on and why things are shaping up a particular way.
> Kay's use of architecture as an example was refreshing. His point is that direct approaches and master planning can lead to cities and buildings that look great on paper, but are basically unlivable. He points to planned cities like Brasilia, but I have experienced the same in Canberra as well as Capitol Hill area in Washington. They look great on paper, but nobody actually `lives' there, rather they live in the near suburbs that emerged rather than being planned.
> Kay's analysis and conclusions are qualitative and self evident in nature. He makes his argument by amassing examples where the `direct' approach has failed and lays them against descriptions where leaders were supposedly indirect. These positive examples are explained soley in the context of obliquity without attributing the leaders behavior to any other idea, motivation or context. An example is his discussion of FDR and the New Deal, which he sees as obliquity. However, looking at the initiatives in the New Deal you find direct goals and objectives. Sure there are multiple initiatives, not all of them worked, but they were hardly indirect.
> Kay's argument falls down quite easily with a simple question and idea. The question, posed to one practicing obliquity is "why?" and the idea is that a complex world requires a more complex approach to leadership than simply charging up a hill. The answer to why these goals would elicit a direct response. Such a response turns obliquity from a concept of problem solving and leadership into the observation that complexity requires multi-part goals. Something that is far less revolutionary.
> The idea that a complex world requires multiple, flexible and adaptive leadership is not new and by wrapping that simple idea into an academic term - obliquity - he separates some helpful advice from an audience that needs it most.
Overall the book's title, term, idea and concepts promise more than they deliver, particularly for readers who are looking for new tools, techniques and ways of thinking about the world and how you lead in it. The observation that complexity and dynamism undermine command and control is important. As is the answer o purusing multiple adaptive plans that require leaders to add and subtract based on experience and progress. Those are helpful, but the book's approach and tone is too academic, too removed from managers to either directly or indirectly deliver on its promise.
If you are a student of complexity, if you enjoy a thought provoking and academic discussion, then you will find value in this book and enjoy it. If you are a manager looking to get tools, techniques, approaches you can use, then you will find this book wanting.
The author would argue that seeking such direct things as tools is a weak approach that is bound to fail and rather what is required is a new philosophy of problem solving. He would be right, but you cannot address an issue without taking action and this book needed more support for how you act, even indirectly to achieve goals in a complex world.
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 Truth About Markets 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 (e.g. inAckoff'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 ourselves 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.