Obliquity by John Kay – Book Review

This book discusses how it is impossible sometimes to pursue our goals directly, where oblique (indirect) paths yield better results.


The writer basically validates this by examples from three fields. The happiest people aren’t those who pursue happiness, the most profitable companies aren’t those fully and directly focused on profit, and the wealthiest people aren’t the most materialistic seekers of money. Even forests most resistant to fire aren’t those whose firefighters target extinguishing every fire.


There are three broad senses of the term happiness, where the lowest most basic level includes momentary pleasurable feelings. The intermediate level is a state of mind and not a physical response, a sense if satisfaction and well being. The highest level eudaimonia (Aristotle) is of quality of life, flourishing, and fulfillment of potential. Parenthood is for many a great second and high level achievement while being a source of discomfort on the most basic level. Higher level objectives are very loose and unidentifiable. Direct approaches make distinction between means and ends that don’t exist in reality.


Relationships are neither causal nor linear nor uni directional . In any complex enough environment, healthy decision making can’t advance be defining objectives and linearly seeking discrete solutions .. Only by continuously balancing the incompatible and incommensurable components of such problems can solutions be found.


Problems often simply can’t be solved directly. A number of causes support this. ‘muddling through’- a process of initially building out from the current situation step by step and by small degrees.  This mode of decision making as opposed to the direct comprehensive one, is a much more efficient, realistic and successful mode in life’s complex situations. Root analysis and detailed objectives simply don’t work for achieving high level goals. Unlike sudoku, problems not characterized with one unique solution, interactive and interdependent, with no complete list of possible actions, and non-bounded complexity, call for muddling through as a decision making strategy.


The incremental, indirect, collaborative, open, flexible, and ‘testing’ components of problem solving constitute strong foundations for the oblique method when situations arising include plurality ( multiple solutions ) , interactivity ( intermediary  outcomes , different components , and multiple contributions add nonlinearityv and increase complexity ), complexity ( available st of possible actions and difficulty of describing the problem analytically ), incompleteness ( information and inputs), and abstraction ( models are imperfect descriptions of reality).


How do we solve problems in a complex world?
First we need to clearly get rid of our attribution bias and not always infer design from outcome. What happens is frequently not what was intended, as outcomes arise through complex processes whose totality no one grasps.


How to successfully utilize oblique decision making:
– actions are chosen from a limited constrained set of options ( by successive limited comparison )
– taking into consideration our limited knowledge
– being eclectic in use of models narratives and sources of info ( implicit)
– continual and gradual adaptation
– the  importance of  expertise
– consistency is minor and order emerges spontaneously



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