John Kay may be my favorite business writer. For some time he's been thinking about a concept he calls "obliquity," which is the subject of a forthcoming book, Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly. An essay from the Financial Times in 2004 explains the concept.
Obliquity is characteristic of systems that are complex, imperfectly understood, and change their nature as we engage with them.... [These are systems in which] the attempt to focus on simple, well defined objectives proved less successful than management with a broader, more comprehensive conception of objectives.... Obliquity is equally relevant to our businesses and our bodies, to the management of our lives and our national economies.
And yes, it is counterintuitive.
Isn't it true that you must do better if you set out to maximise something - happiness, wealth, profit - than if you don't? Surprisingly, the answer is no. Life is too complex and uncertain for us to be able to predict and follow the most direct perceived route to success. Our knowledge is always imperfect, and events are influenced by the unpredictability of other people and organisations. Instead, our objectives are best achieved by a more meandering approach that enables us to adapt our strategy to changing situations. And we learn about the nature of our objectives and the means of achieving them through a process of experiment and discovery.
Part of what's brilliant about Kay's argument is that it ranges very widely. He compares CEOs who think broadly versus those who focus more exclusively on profitability, and finds that the second are more likely to destroy value: as he puts it, "Obliquity gives rise to the profit-seeking paradox: the most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented." In forestry, it turns out that letting small fires burn helps protect forests from huge fires by clearing undergrowth. He talks about architecture and urban planning ("a house is not simply a machine for living in"), and the complexity and adaptability of biological systems (and how markets are like them). (Indeed, while he doesn't trumpet this, Kay's may be the best application of biological concepts to management and organizational theory around.)
Interesting stuff in theory, but what does it mean? Kay lays that out in a recent Management Today article:
- Have objectives, but keep your approach flexible so that you can overcome unforeseen obstacles and take advantage of surprise opportunities.
- Know that your knowledge is always imperfect and incomplete. Cast your net wide - always go fishing for more.
- Don't be afraid to change tack once you've started if you see a better course.
- Meandering can lead to serendipitous discoveries and unexpected benefits.
- Think laterally to solve problems: indirect solutions can often be the most effective answer.