Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly. John Kay
If you want to go in one direction, the best route may involve going in another. This is the concept of 'obliquity': paradoxical as it sounds, many goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly. The richest men and women are not the most materialistic; the happiest people are not necessarily those who focus on happiness, and the most profitable companies are not always the most profit-oriented as the recent financial crisis showed us. Whether overcoming geographical obstacles, winning decisive battles or meeting sales targets, history shows that oblique approaches are the most successful, especially in difficult terrain. John Kay applies his provocative, universal theory to everything from international business to town planning and from football to managing forest fire.
as I wondered why senior executives insisted on paying themselves so much. Why was it so important to receive money they did not need and would never have time to spend? The remuneration was necessary, I realized, to sustain their sense of their own importance. What self-respecting chief executive would accept that he should be paid in the bottom quartile of CEO salaries in comparable companies—although, by definition, a quarter of people must find themselves in that position? Even among City and
prefers to emphasize good judgment. In the following chapters I review each of these issues in turn. Oblique decision makers and problem solvers understand that the connection of intention and outcome is often not apparent either in prospect or retrospect. Hindsight colors our interpretations of events and history—and yet even with hindsight we often do not really understand either causes or outcomes. Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich proclaiming “peace in our time” and received a hero’s
interplay of emotions are mistaken; the oblique accounts that happy people give of their lives, wealthy people give of their motives and the CEOs of successful businesses give of their companies’ social responsibility are humbug, or at any rate they differ from the underlying reality. Of course, we should not rely unconditionally on people’s accounts of what they do, so the economists’ argument is better than it sounds, though still not a very good one. Its basis is that decisions, especially
experience derived from loosely analogous situations. The dinner guests explained that the Underground map was simply the wrong model for my journey from Paddington to Hyde Park Gardens. But if I had asked, as I might, “When should I use the Underground map?” the only sensible answer would have been “You’ll learn as you get to know London better.” Judgment and experience teach us which models to use on which occasions. Obliquity differs from spurious notions of rationality, but it isn’t simply
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