Obliquity by John Kay refutes the idea that complex systems can be understood in enough detail to be actively managed no matter what the experts say. John Kay’s point concentrates on the folly of control and the hubris of those who believe that they can directly architect, direct and dictate changes to achieve their goals.
Obliquity rests on the argument that the world is too complex, dynamic and ever changing to control in the way that most business leaders think. Leaders want direct action – raise profits, or enter new markets – that are often lead to failure for the simple reason that they are too direct. In place of directly pursuing goals, Kay recommends leaders choose to obliquity.
Obliquity describes the process of achieving complex objectives indirectly. Things cannot be understood well enough or remain stable long enough for a direct plan to work. The central idea of the book can be summed up
“If you are clear about your high-level goals and knowledgeable enough about the systems their achievement depends on, then you can solve problems in a direct way. But goals are often vague, interactions unpredictable, complex extensive, problem descriptions incomplete, the environment uncertain. That is where obliquity comes into play.”
Kay’s book concentrates on discussing the different aspects of an indirect approach and the relative inability of pre-planned and controlled solutions to lead to results. Kay covers different aspects of this issue through a series of focused chapters. The discussion tends toward an academic view and it can be easy to draw the wrong conclusion as you go through the individual chapters. Because of this, I would recommend reading the book a particular way:
- Chapter 1 – Obliquity – why are objectives are often best pursued directly.
- Chapter 18 – Order without design
- Chapter 19 – Very well then, I contradict myself
- Chapter 20 – Dodgy dossiers
Then I would read the book from chapter 2 through chapter 17.
The book positions itself as a business book, but it is more of a study and observations concerning the nature of managing in an environment of complex systems. This book is in the vain of Nicholas Taleb’s “Black Swan.” Business readers will find the material indirect and presented in a way that requires greater reflection before it can be put into practice.
Overall this book is recommended for readers who want to study the nature of action, ideas and complex systems. Readers who favor a discussion based and thought-based argument will find this book appealing. Less so for people who are looking for new ideas on how to lead and reach goals in a complex environment.
- Obliquity and the idea that goals in a complex world are best achieved indirectly are interesting and thought provoking. Kay’s presentation and argument of these points in straight forward language and examples. He covers a range of topics and angles concerning this central idea.
- The connection between the type and level of complexity we face in the modern world and the ways in which we pursue goals was helpful at helping to redefine the fundamentals of leadership and action.
- Franklin’s Gambit was a plus and gave me a new tool to think about what is going on and why things are shaping up a particular way.
- Kay’s use of architecture as an example was refreshing. His point is that direct approaches and master planning can lead to cities and buildings that look great on paper, but are basically unlivable. He points to planned cities like Brasilia, but I have experienced the same in Canberra as well as Capitol Hill area in Washington. They look great on paper, but nobody actually ‘lives’ there, rather they live in the near suburbs that emerged rather than being planned.
- Kay’s analysis and conclusions are qualitative and self evident in nature. He makes his argument by amassing examples where the ‘direct’ approach has failed and lays them against descriptions where leaders were supposedly indirect. These positive examples are explained soley in the context of obliquity without attributing the leaders behavior to any other idea, motivation or context. An example is his discussion of FDR and the New Deal, which he sees as obliquity. However, looking at the initiatives in the New Deal you find direct goals and objectives. Sure there are multiple initiatives, not all of them worked, but they were hardly indirect.
- Kay’s argument falls down quite easily with a simple question and idea. The question, posed to one practicing obliquity is “why?” and the idea is that a complex world requires a more complex approach to leadership than simply charging up a hill. The answer to why these goals would elicit a direct response. Such a response turns obliquity from a concept of problem solving and leadership into the observation that complexity requires multi-part goals. Something that is far less revolutionary.
- The idea that a complex world requires multiple, flexible and adaptive leadership is not new and by wrapping that simple idea into an academic term – obliquity – he separates some helpful advice from an audience that needs it most.
Overall the book’s title, term, idea and concepts promise more than they deliver, particularly for readers who are looking for new tools, techniques and ways of thinking about the world and how you lead in it. The observation that complexity and dynamism undermine command and control is important. As is the answer o purusing multiple adaptive plans that require leaders to add and subtract based on experience and progress. Those are helpful, but the book’s approach and tone is too academic, too removed from managers to either directly or indirectly deliver on its promise.
If you are a student of complexity, if you enjoy a thought provoking and academic discussion, then you will find value in this book and enjoy it. If you are a manager looking to get tools, techniques, approaches you can use, then you will find this book wanting.
The author would argue that seeking such direct things as tools is a weak approach that is bound to fail and rather what is required is a new philosophy of problem solving. He would be right, but you cannot address an issue without taking action and this book needed more support for how you act, even indirectly to achieve goals