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Book review: Obliquity by John Kay

Obliquity is written by John Kay, a director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies and business consultant, and asks us to think in a new way. He asserts that our goals are often not best directly approached but rather by an oblique route — for example, the happiest people don’t directly pursue happiness.

This book is a mixture of business and philosophy trying to articulate that events occur well because people have appreciated, either consciously or subconsciously, that higher-level objectives are reached through experimentation and recognition of change, or through a skill/expertise that has been accumulated and practised many times. It is an extremely difficult and complex subject to write about. He is trying to argue that one way of thinking is more rational than another (and being rational is not about being consistent, according to Kay).

Kay appeals to foolhardy business leaders and politicians to appreciate subtleties, changes and ‘irresolvable uncertainties’. Only if you are “clear about your high-level goals and knowledgeable enough about the systems their achievement depends on” can you solve problems directly. He attacks the scientific decision-making of those who follow Franklin’s Rule (derived by Benjamin Franklin) where people and organisations weigh arguments for and against a decision in some kind of moral algebra.

Kay warns us that we can think we know more about the world than we actually do, thus leading to disastrous decisions. He refers in particular to the global financial crisis and the Iraq War, where decisions were often made by powerful individuals — ones relying on historic models or arrogant assumptions that evidence was built around.

Kay asks us to think about how we interpret history; within the book, he writes: “We incline to see history through the lives of great men. That inclination blinds us to the real complexity of politics, business and finance.” For example, Churchill’s all-important objective of defeating the Nazis in World War II was achieved through a series of circumstances that he could not have perceived but ultimately needed to happen, such as Pearl Harbour, which allowed America to join the war.

Similarly, Kay gently criticises business leaders who set out goals such as maximising shareholder value or profits. For instance, Boeing’s oblique approach from CEO Bill Allen to ‘eat, breathe, sleep the world of aeronautics’, and it was an extremely successful company. One disastrous merger later by a new CEO to emphasise ‘shareholder return’ and it fell behind its rival Airbus. Kay is probably oversimplifying the point to support his argument, but he doesn’t seem to care; in fact, he just wants to make us think.

He is not asking us to ignore our accumulated knowledge and history, but rather wants us to find a more pluralistic approach to meeting objectives — but also not to over-interpret our actions in how we get there. He argues many people have great expertise but when we ask them to examine it more methodically or scientifically, often they can’t or don’t realise how they sourced their achievement — think David Beckham translating his free kick technique into physics.

Ultimately, I think Kay wants us to think about adaptation, and his admiration of Darwin is clear. The world is changing and unpredictable — indeed, who would have thought back in 2009 that a volcanic ash cloud would close the majority of European airspace?

So let us embrace decision-making with an oblique philosophy, if we dare — exactly what this means is a little unclear, but then it is supposed to be. One final thought: maybe we can’t really know the art of good decision-making and achieving our goals, but perhaps that is because there isn’t such a thing.

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Andrew Tjaardstra is editor of Professional Broking at Incisive Media.