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
* 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.