Long book review of Obliquity by John Kay


Obliquity – Why our goals are best achieved indirectly

I read a lot and I add most of my books to my reading lists and sometimes I blog about the book and what I like, mostly because it acts as a reference for me in the future.  However, this book is different, I 100% recommend it and it is an 11 on the volume scale of 10.   Many thanks to Rory Sutherland for the recommendation.

Obliquity is the principle that complex goals are best achieved indirectly.  The book explains why the happiest people aren’t necessarily those who focus on happiness, and how the most successful cities aren’t planned. And if a company announces shareholder return as its number one goal, perhaps we should beware: the most profit-orientated companies aren’t usually the most profitable.

Paradoxical as it sounds, if you want to go in one direction, the best route may involve going in another.  All that management theory of direct is undone in the book and it comes back to how to bring a team with you without telling them what to do.

 Obliquity is necessary because we live in an world of uncertainty and complexity; the problems we encounter aren’t always clear – and we often can’t pinpoint what our goals are anyway; circumstances change; people change – and are infuriatingly hard to predict; and direct approaches are often arrogant and unimaginative

John shows how we can apply the principle of obliquity to our own lives (why ‘muddling through’ can sometimes be the answer).

20 years after my MBA, here is a book that says that all those direct concepts they taught me provided a great framework, but as I have discovered anyway they would not help me enjoy work, that I have discovered myself and this book confirms what I have been doing.  This is not a self help book for accountants; it is a great book for entrepreneurs.

Here are the best bits for me, but in reality this doesn’t do the book justice.





Our customers did not use these models for their decision making either.  They used them internally and externally to justify decisions that they had already made

So very very true of most consulting - where is the true value add of direct?


Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre

"a fishing crew may be organised and understood as a purely technical and economic means to a productive end, whose aim is only or overridingly to satisfy as profitably as possible some market's demand for fish [..] Not only the skills, but also the qualities of character valued by those who manage the organisation, will be those well designed to achieve a high level of profitability.  And each individual at work as a member of such fishing crew will value those qualities of character in her or himself or in others which are apt to produce a high level of reward for her or himself.

Is sustainability achievable if we teach this?


Jack Welsh  "The job of a leader and his or her team is to deliver to commitments in the short term while investing in the long term health of the business  [..]  Employees will benefit from job security and better rewards. customers will benefit from better products or services. Communities will benefit because successful companies and their employees give back.  And obviously shareholders will benefit because they can count on companies who will deliver on both their short term commitments and their long term vision.

The roads to profit are not always direct.  Is profit maximisation a primary even a goal.


An old story tells of a visitor who encounters three stonemasons working on a medieval cathedral, and asks each what he is doing.  'I am cutting this stone to shape,' says the first, describing his basic actions. 'I am building a great cathedral,' says the second, describing his intermediate goal. 'And I am working for the glory of God,' says the third, describing his high-level objective. The construction of architectural masterpieces required that high level objectives be pursued through lesser, but nonetheless fulfilling, goals and actions.

Should we all have higher level objectives, or do we even need to understand them?


No one will be buried with the epitaph "he maximised shareholder value"  The epitaph of men such as Ford, Allen, Disney, Jobs reads instead: "He built a great business, which made money for shareholders, gave rewarding employment, and stimulated the development of suppliers and distributors by meeting customers' needs which they had not known they had before these men developed products to satisfy them.'

Approaching high -level objectives in an oblique manner, they achieved many supporting goals


The actions of the man who buys us a drink in the hope that we will buy his mural funds are formally the same as those of the friend who buys us a drink because he likes our company. But it is usually not too difficult to spot the difference, and the difference matters.

‘Honesty is the best policy, a man who acts on that motive is not an honest man,’ wrote Archbishop Whately. If we deal with someone for whom honesty is the best policy, we can never be sure that this is not the occasion on which, perhaps after many years, they will conclude that honest is no longer the best policy.

We do better to rely in people who are honest by character rather than honest by choice, because character is enduring and predictable but polices are not.


The foresters saw the tress, but not the wood.  You cannot necessarily deduce that properties of the whole by adding up the properties of the individual parts


Goodharts Law, who observed that as soon as government adopted monetary targets the aggregates they targets changed the meaning and significant

You get what you measure


The stonemason committed to the glory of God will build a better cathedral than the stonemason who is motivated entirely by the bonuses offered and scourges threatened by the employer

Working on translating this into goals for CEO and shareholders


These latter problems (geopolitical, complex business) are best tackled not by moral algebra, but obliquity; they involve high-level objectives archived through adaptation and iteration, with constant rebalancing of incompatible and incommensurable components that are imperfectly known but acquired as the process foes on.


I have never seen an analysis that didn't define the businesses the executives liked as stars and the ones they didn't want as dogs. 

So true – you get what you pay for.


Such failure of imagination is inevitable. If you could have anticipated the functions and uses of the personal computer, you would already have taken the main steps towards inventing it.  To describe a future political movement or economic theory or line of philosophical thought is to bring it into existence.  Most of what will be important in the future is outside our knowledge; it exists only in the future. The direct approach demands a capacity for prediction that we can never possess.

Any large corporate – read this again and again.  When it still makes no sense, buy start-up.


I described a spectrum of problems.  At one end were those - like noughts and crosses - best solved directly; at the other were those - the pursuit of happiness - best achieved obliquely. There is an analogous spectrum of decision-making styles, from direct to oblique.

The direct decision maker perceives a direct connection between intentions and outcomes; the oblique decision maker believes that the intention is neither necessary nor sufficient to secure the outcome. The direct problem solver reviews all possible outcomes; the oblique solver chooses from a much more limited set. The direct problem solver assembles all available information; the oblique decision maker recognises the limits of his or her knowledge. The direct decision maker maximises his or he objectives; the oblique decision maker is continually adaptive.  The direct problem solver can always find an explanation for his of her choices; the oblique problem solver sometimes just finds the right answer. The direct decision maker believes that order is the production of a directing mind; the oblique decision maker recognises that order emerges spontaneously – no one fully grasps it. The direct problem solver insists on consistence, on always treating the same problem the same way; the oblique problem solver never encounters the same problem twice. The direct decision maker emphasises the importance of rationality of process; the oblique decision maker believers that decision making is inherently subjective and prefer the emphasise good judgement

Corporate vs entrepreneur


A prisoner of brutal and arbitrary captors, Stockdale had unusually little control of his fate. But accounts similar to the Stockdale paradox are reported by survivors of other extreme experiences. One lesson from these great survivors is that realistic possibility of accomplishing high-level objectives even without a knowledge of future states or any control over current actions

Away days may not be good at setting the new agenda!


The most successful twentieth-century US president, Franklin D Roosevelt, understood very well that goals and action must constantly be revised if high-level objectives are to be achieved. Roosevelt described his approach as one of ‘bold, persistence, experimentation’. ‘Try something,’ Roosevelt went on. ‘If it fails, admit it frankly, and try another.’


Roosevelt, like Lincoln before him, understood that the scope of this authority was inescapably limited by the imprecision of his objectives, the complexity of this environment, the unpredictability of the reaction or 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.

Liking this


Suppose I went swinging off my course and came in two days late, and they asked me ‘Where have you been all that time, captain?’ What would I say to that? ‘Went round to dodge the bad weather,’ I would say. ‘It must been dam’ dab.’ They would say. ‘I don’t know, I’ve dodged clear of it.”

The hero is not the captain who sails obliquely round the storm but he captain who takes his ship through it.  The diplomats who might have dissuaded an invasion of the Falklands through oblique approaches would not have been congratulated on their achievements, but the politicians who attacked the resulting crisis directly were admired for the resolution.  The intelligence agents who anticipated an attack on the Twin Towers were not praised for the prescience, and the risk managers who warned banks about the impending nemesis were fired.  It is good for reputation to succeed against the odds. But is often better for reputation to fail against the odds than to improve them.  IN an uncertain situation the effect of improving the odds is never obvious either before the vent or after it.


And yet the success of obliquity remains paradoxical.  Surely you must do better if you intend to achieve something than if you don’t?  The metaphor of the blind watchmaker illustrates that the answer to that question is often no.  If the environment is uncertain, imperfectly understood and constantly changing, the product of a process of adoption and evolution many be better adapted to that environment than the product of conscious design

Agile software design


Not long ago, even people who experience it did not believe it.  Like the bewildered Russians, they found it self-evident that things would work better if someone was in charge. … Many people who seek to build ever more centralised business organisation, or to institute a global financial architecture, still do not really take the implications of this evidence on board

Is Google truly open?


Hayek observed that: “nobody has yet succeeded in deliberately arranging all the activities that go on in a complex society. If anyone did ever succeed in fully organising such a society, it would no longer make use of many minds, but would be altogether dependent on one mind; it would certainly not be very complex but extremely primitive – and so would soon be the mind whose knowledge and will determined everything

The Matrix will not work and no one can  rule you, but can a complex state.  Is there a role for mirrors?


Yet for years I (John key) struggled with the idea that if profit could not the defining purpose of a corporation, there must be something else that was its defining purpose.  If business did not maximise profit, what else did it maximise? Iw as making the same mistake as those victims of the teleological fallacy who struggled for centuries with question like “what is a tiger for?”  Tigers are good at being Tigers – that is it.

There is no defining purpose of these activates distinct from the activates themselves. Those who direct business must try to balance a multiplicity of objectives and meet the many and incompatible demands that individuals and other organisation make upon them.

Business do not maximise anything. The most successful business leaders like Marks or Walton or Gates pursued the unquantifiable, but entirely meaningful, objective of building a great business. 

Am re-thinking some objectives for 2011


The theory of rational choice dominates economic thinking today, and its influence has spread to politics, psychology and sociology. By denying maximisation, we deny relational choice, obliquity therefore contradicts the theory that has been the most influential doctrine in the social sciences for at least 40 years

So I have only been taught one method – shame on the system.


Rationality is defined as consistency, and consistency is formally equivalent to maximisation. So rational individuals are necessarily engaged in a process of maximisation.  If there is a flaw in this argument it must lie in the equation of rationality and consistency.  Behaviour may be consistent, but not rational in any ordinary sense of the word.  To commune every night with fairies at the bottom of the garden is certainly consistent, but hardly rational.  But even if it is possible to be consistent but not rational, surly it is impossible to be rational but not consistent.

Sometimes we want things that are incompatible. We want to eat cream cakes, but also remain slim and fit.  We want to give up smoking,, but was also want another cigarette. We want a secure retirement but we do not want to save. Our expression of preference seem to be contradictory


There is nothing irrational about want incompatible things.

Irrationality does not even lie in resolving incompatible demands in different ways at different times. Visiting a foreign city, you have a recommendation for a local restaurant. You go there, and you like it. You choose fish, and it is excellent – so good that you return the following evening. And now you choose lamb, why? Maybe you have acquired new information since you previous choice. Maybe your tastes have change.  But neither of these explanations is necessary and neither is probable. Obliquity says that you want whatever is currently the subject of our direct pursuit.

Is a digital footprint a good prediction tool?


But these ‘explanation of why your behaviour is consistence are hopeless.


Judgement and experience tech us which models to use on which occasions


Different people will form different judgements in the same situation, not just because they are have different objectives but because they observe different options, select different information and assess that information differently; and even with hindsight it will often not be possible to say who was right and who was wrong. In a necessarily uncertain world, as 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. The notion of a best solution may itself be misconceived.

Should learn this as I will quote it.


The skill of problem solving frequently lies in the interpretation and reinterpretation of high level objectives. 

Steve Jobs reinterpretation of Morita idea of the iPod, solutions to problems people did not know they had.


To understand obliquity requires perceiving that the answer to that question is to present not an alternative solution but an alternative way of thinking.

… based on a different set of values and beliefs


(when) The direct approach is simply impossible, do something and start. Don’t solve it all at the outset