Obliquity: Why Our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly by John Kay
|Obliquity: Why Our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly by John Kay|
|Category: Business and Finance|
|Reviewer: Chris Bradshaw|
|Summary: A short and snappy account of why an indirect approach to problem solving is often the best route to success.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 224||Date: February 2011|
|Publisher: Profile Books Ltd|
Sometimes the shortest route to a destination isn't the quickest way to get there. Take crossing central America for example. Instinctively, you think that the best way to navigate your way from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific is to travel directly from east to west. It may seem counter intuitive but the designers of the Panama Canal realised that the easiest way to make the journey was in fact to use a thin strip of land and then go in seemingly the wrong direction from west to east. Architects and cartographers found that the obvious route wasn't the best way to solve the problem put in front of them. An indirect or oblique approach would prove to be far more successful. That in a nutshell is noted economist John Kay's concept of obliquity.
Directness often isn't the way to success and that applies as much to politicians, economists and anyone elusively searching for the secret of happiness as it did to the engineers responsible for one of the greatest construction feats in history.
The world is a complicated place where, according to Kay, gradual adaptation and innovation are a far more likely recipe for success than a scorched earth approach. His argument is persuasive on both the macro and the micro level whether it's the superiority of the post-war Western market economy compared to the planned Soviet model (even given the current financial meltdown) or the organic approach to town planning as opposed to the Le Corbusier inspired prescriptive approach.
In a similar vein Kay contrasts the success of businesses like Boeing, whose profitability he claims is largely down to its love of planes, with competitors who relentlessly pursue shareholder value and profit. The really successful companies do so well not because they want to make oodles of cash but rather because they believe in innovative products and giving the customer great value and service. Do that and profits will take care of themselves. Businesses that pursue profits at all cost may succeed in the short term but it is no way to build a successful, long lasting and ultimately profitable enterprise.
Kay also considers the oblique approach to politics. Franklin Roosevelt managed to achieve many of his higher policy goals by taking an indirect route. The journey to the New Deal and even entry to World War II was often unorthodox and drew ample criticism on the way but many of FDR's goals were ultimately realised. Contrast this with Johnson and Nixon whose more direct approach to decision making may have been more obviously successful at achieving their lower level objectives but fell short on the really big policy ambitions which ultimately led to their downfalls.
Kay also believes that obliquely approaching personal issues can reap better rewards than taking the direct approach. People constantly searching for happiness are seldom those who ultimately achieve it. Contrast them with for example a rock climber who has undergone great hardship en route but eventually ascends the high peak and finds contentment.
John Kay is an economist who can write about complex ideas without resorting to unnecessary technical jargon and Obliquity is no exception. The case Kay makes for the oblique approach is a persuasive one, told with great clarity and no little style. At just 180 pages long Obliquity is a short book but one that is full of ideas, ideas that politicians, businessmen and the wider reading public would do well to consider.
I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.
Further reading suggestion: The Big Short by Michael Lewis
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You can read more book reviews or buy Obliquity: Why Our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly by John Kay at Amazon.com.
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