The Roundabout Route To Realising Goals

March 30, 2012

I first came across the idea of obliquity after reading an essay on the subject by the economist John Kay in the Financial Times in 2004 and have mulled over it ever since!

There’s also a more recent article by him in The Independent (linked to the publication of his book on the topic)

Obliquity is the idea that complex goals are often best pursued indirectly. In general, oblique approaches recognise that complex objectives tend to be imprecisely defined. These objectives contain many elements that aren’t necessarily or obviously compatible with each other. Furthermore, we learn about the nature of the objectives and the means of achieving them during a process of experiment and discovery.

and here’s a comparison of the characteristics of the direct and indirect approaches

Direct action

* Objectives are clear

* Systems are comprehensible

* We know the available options

* What happens happens because someone intended it

* Rules can define the system

* Direction provides order

* Good decisions are the product of good processes

Obliquely does it

* We learn about our objectives as we strive for them

* Systems are complex and depend on unpredictable reactions

* We can consider only a few possibilities

* There is no clear link between intention and outcome

* Expertise is required, tacit knowledge is essential

* Order often emerges and is achieved spontaneously

* Good decisions are the product of good judgment

Interestingly, the reviews of his book on Amazon UK are very mixed.

As always, for either approach, putting these ideas into practice is still a major issue. In addition the mindset for each is very different, so if you want to do a bit of both a certain amount of schizophrenia may be required!

How about small-scale real-life applications of obliquity?

A (growing) number of my friends and colleagues are setting up their own businesses due to layoffs from large organisations. These are people trained, judged and promoted via the direct approach (as I was). They’re now in a very unstable environment where direct approaches will likely have limited impact.

So it’s interesting to hear the new, more flexible viewpoints they’re taking and the early results.

However, when chatting to them, I’ve realised that it’s all to easy to accidentally slip into ‘direct mode’ as it seems to offer (the illusion of) certainty and clarity.

What’s really needed are conversations that utiliise a hybrid approach – advice and comments that imaginatively combine elements of both mindsets, something I’ll experiment with in the next few meetings!

Picture credit: above

As an aside, although in a very related vein, there’s also the innovative idea of ‘Oblique Strategies‘ as developed by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt. The picture below is an example.

Each card contains a phrase or cryptic remark which can be used to break a deadlock or dilemma situation. Some are specific to music composition; others are more general.


Creativity: Good And Bad Theft

March 15, 2012

There’s an interesting reading list for 2012 suggested by Seth Godin.

The first one on the list is ‘Steal Like An Artist’ by Austin Kleon. Out of curiosity I looked for and found a review. I like concise and visually-attractive books that get you thinking so I’ll give it a read when it comes out in the UK in April.

In the above image (from the book), it’s illuminating how using different words can be so effective and powerful in getting the message over. Just that point alone made me realise that it’s good to pepper conversations with such words if you want to encourage people to think a little differently!

Picture credit: here.


Cafe Scientifique And The Future Of Data

March 12, 2012

I’ve been meaning to go to (my first) Cafe Scientifque for quite a while now

Cafe Scientifique is a place where, for the price of a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, anyone can come to explore the latest ideas in science and technology. Meetings take place in cafes, bars, restaurants and even theatres, but always outside a traditional academic context.

Finally the timing was good and last week I managed to get to a meeting in nearby Winchester, which was held in a very pleasant patisserie (great cakes!). Hugh Proudman, a Program Director at IBM, was the speaker and the topic was

‘The future of Data: will we be swamped or can we manage it?’

Hugh is based at the IBM Hursley Park site which is near Winchester.

The format was a 30 min presentation, a break for refreshments and then a period of Q&A. After some general introductory material, Hugh went on to talk about the leading-edge IBM computer system Watson. This hit the popular headlines last year through winning the US quiz show Jeopardy! against top human contestants.

The talk generated a very lively and varied discussion ranging from technical to ethical issues!

Coincidentally there’s an interesting article on Watson and it’s possible applications to the healthcare market in today’s Wired:

“Watson will give you the confidence and say: ‘I”m 90 percent sure of this, or I’m only 10 percent sure of this.’ You can immediately see how that is useful in medicine or in finance. The other thing we can do is we can tell the user why is this answer here. What kinds of evidence do we use, what facts did we use, what were we sure about, and what were we not sure about? And were the documents we used from very reliable sources or from less-reliable sources.”

The Cafe Scientifique is a useful way of bringing together people with a common interest in science (and it’s ramifications) that may not otherwise connect. In fact, by pure coincidence, I sat down next to someone who used to work for my previous employer (QinetiQ) but who I’d never met before – it really is a small world!

The cafes are free and have locations worldwide.

Why not try one? You can find your local one here.

Alternatively, perhaps you’d like to help start one up (info here)?

Picture credit: here (cropped).


Power Steering For The Mind

March 5, 2012

Following on from ‘starting to code again‘, I spotted a thoughtful piece by John Naughton in The Observer yesterday on the (more general) topic of teaching computer science in UK schools.

His key points are (this is an edited and extracted version):

One – Jettison Some Baggage From The Past

As a result, educational thinking about the importance of computing and information technology in this country has been stunted for well over a decade. We’ve taken a technology that can provide “power steering for the mind” (as a noted metaphor puts it) and turned it into lessons for driving Microsoft Word.

Two – Teach Computer Science Not ICT

The idea that there’s a major body of knowledge in this field – complete with a stable and intellectually rigorous conceptual framework that is independent of today’s or yesterday’s gadgetry – is probably unfamiliar to residents of Whitehall, who think ICT is trivial because it’s always becoming obsolete.

Three – Yes, It Really Is That Important

There are actually far more important reasons (than purely economic ones) why our children should emerge from school with a deeper understanding of information technology and computational thinking than is the case at present. They are to do with citizenship and democracy.

The world our children will inherit is one that will be shaped and controlled not just by physical realities, such as climate change, but by computer software.

In the same section of the newspaper there’s also an interesting article on ‘how to write an app in just one day‘!