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Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly Hardcover – April 14, 2011

3.8 out of 5 stars 36 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews


'A characteristic John Kay production. It is a pleasure to read...with wit and humour, too. He integrates economics and philosophy, operations research and sociology, political science and psychology. It is a useful corrective to the patent remedies of those snake-oil salesmen who display their wares at airport bookshops...a thought-provoking, and even useful read.' Howard Davies, Financial Times --This text refers to an alternate Hardcover edition.

About the Author

John Kay is a visiting professor at the London School of Economics and a fellow of St. John's College, Oxford University. As the director, he established the Institute for Fiscal Studies as one of Britain's most respected think tanks.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Press; First Edition edition (April 14, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594202788
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594202780
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.6 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #735,758 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Mark P. McDonald VINE VOICE on May 12, 2011
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Obliquity refutes the idea that complex systems can be understood in enough detail to be actively managed no matter what the experts say. John Kay's point concentrates on the folly of control and the hubris of those who believe that they can directly architect, direct and dictate changes to achieve their goals.

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.
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Format: Hardcover
I want to take a very direct approach to reviewing this book. This is because writing a book review is a well contained, finite task.

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.
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Format: Hardcover
I read a book review in WSJ and thought that the book sounded interesting. As I read the book, I thought that there was just not enough material to fill a book and that the concepts could be presented better in an article. At the end of the book I found out that the idea was originally presented in an article in the Financial Times in 2004. I have not read the original article but I recommend that readers obtain the article and perhaps skip the book.

The concept of obliquity, reaching goals indirectly, is interesting but it can be a bit like reading about time travel. It just never works perfectly. For example, assume someone sets out to write a book that is regarded as fine literature but instead ends up with a book that is regarded as a "fun trashy read". The book becomes widely popular, a movie is made from it and the auhtor ends up making lots of money. John Kay would argue that the author was successful (because she became wealthy) because she approached her goal obliquely. But her goal wasn't to make money - it was to write a fine book. So did she reach her goal? Also, even if you buy Kay's thesis, there is no practical value. If you plan to reach your goal indirectly then it is not indirect anymore. Just like you cannot plan spontaneity - it just has to happen.

Kay also chooses to see all events through the prism of his model. For example, he talks about Richard Fuld, the former CEO of Lehman. Fuld became wealthy (which was his direct goal) but drove Lehman into bankruptcy. That does not support Kay's thesis. Fuld achieved his goal directly, but somehow Kay massages the narrative to support his thesis. He argues that Fuld failed (since Lehman failed) because he aimed for wealth instead of more worthy goals.

The concept of obliquity is interesting but I don't think it warrants reading an entire book about it.
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