Book review: Obliquity, by John Kay

John Kay's always dependable - but his 'obliquity' theory paints leaders as stark heroes or villains.

by John McLaren
Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

The exceptionally ugly word 'obliquity' has multiple meanings. In this case, it signifies, in John Kay's own words, 'the process of achieving complex objectives indirectly'. Exhibit A is John Stuart Mill's belated realisation that happiness, rather than being a goal that can be striven for directly, is achievable only by those who acquire it as a by-product of a quite different quest, such as the happiness of others or the betterment of mankind. The corporate equivalent is that companies aiming solely for profits are less likely to reap them than those that hold fast to a higher and broader set of ambitions.

An oblique approach to decision-making is 'iterative and experimental, it constantly adapts'. The key is to 'do something' - almost anything - to get started and begin learning from the process. The direct approach, by contrast, is regarded as doomed to failure, because too little information about any complex task exists at the outset to be able to determine a clear course, and the very process of weighing the issues is corrupted by the prejudices of the assessors.

Kay quotes Benjamin Franklin who, having devised his 'rule' of marshalling pros and cons in columns and adding weightings based on their importance, then wryly undermined his own method of assessment by concluding: 'So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.'

Kay's favourite example of this in action is the Bush administration's deliberations on the pluses and minuses of occupying Iraq - it only wanted one answer.

Kay is one of our most dependably perceptive and interesting economic commentators and he wields a deft pen, so the pages of Obliquity fly by. The text skates elegantly beyond business and economics to Whitman and Picasso, to climbers Mallory and Messner, to the London Underground map, the physics of a dipping Beckham free kick, and Brunelleschi's dome in Florence. There is never a dull moment and there's plenty of wisdom. Consistency, for instance, is rightly skewered as an overrated quality: all the successful businesspeople I've known have shared a capacity for breathtaking handbrake turns when confronted with changing data or a sense that their earlier gut instinct wasn't reliable.

The author's main corporate examples include ICI, Marks & Spencer, Boeing, Citicorp and Apple. The thread is that companies succeed as long as they stick to their high-level aims (making great planes or drugs) or lesser but still significant actions (such as Simon Marks - the M in M&S - establishing a staff canteen offering good food cheaply at a time when diets were poor), but they fail if they abandon them in favour of shorter-term or narrower aims such as 'shareholder value'.

However, it's a lot easier to pick winners and losers after a race is run, and it's a pity that Kay doesn't roll the dice by suggesting which of today's high-flying corporates will fail because of their over-direct policies. Nor does he suggest how a newly appointed manager might persuade investors to back him in a difficult task if he announces that his only plan for getting from A to Z is just to make a start and see how he gets on.

The considerable strength and less important weakness of the book is that it's all painted with brilliantly broad strokes. Everything oblique is good - there are no exceptions. Kay praises the vitality of a semi-abstract Picasso of a cockerel, noting how the fowl's aggression and stupidity are projected so much better than a mere photographic portrait could have managed, but doesn't contrast this with, for example, the roughly contemporaneous developments in music, where composers abandoned traditional structure with largely disastrous results.

All this is in keeping with a Manichean approach where everyone is cast as villain or hero...

Villains, of course, include bankers, and there is no room for any acquittals among this universally guilty bunch. Heroes include Steve Jobs for 'his' iPod and Akio Morita for 'his' Walkman (these individuals certainly played a key role in indicating a general direction and building an environment in which the creativity of others could flourish, but they didn't design or engineer anything personally) - and Andrew Carnegie, whose conversion to philanthropy is adduced as evidence that his entrepreneurship wasn't really about money and who is therefore a classic obliquist.

There is an alternative interpretation: once that wily old strike-breaker had accumulated more cash than he could conceivably lavish on himself, he realised that he could use the surplus as currency to purchase wider and enduring fame and respectability. Just as Carl von Clausewitz termed war as the continuation of politics by other means, Carnegie found a new and more cost-effective use for money.

None of this, though, should put readers off getting their nose into this book. It's the received wisdom that any magazine article stretched to a book (which this reportedly is) will rapidly wear out its welcome, but I would happily have invited Obliquity to grace my hearthside for twice as long.

Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly
John Kay
Profile Books

John McLaren is chairman of the Barchester Group

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