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Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly

3.62  ·  Rating details ·  907 ratings  ·  94 reviews
If you want to go in one direction, the best route may involve going in another. This is the concept of 'obliquity': paradoxical as it sounds, many goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly. Whether overcoming geographical obstacles, winning decisive battles or meeting sales targets, history shows that oblique approaches are the most successful, especial ...more
Hardcover, 224 pages
Published March 18th 2010 by Profile Books
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Ian "Marvin" Graye
The Allure of the Oblique

I bought and read this book because of one word, which happened to be its title.

I was fascinated by the word “obliquity”. I wasn’t familiar with it. I didn’t even know whether it was a neologism created by the author, John Kay, a Professor of Economics and regular columnist for the Financial Times.

As it turns out, the word has been around since the fifteenth century. Naturally, it derives from the word “oblique", which means "slanting, sidelong, indirect".

As a noun, it
Feb 23, 2012 rated it liked it
Good quick read about how the path to achievement is often obtained by "muddling through" with uncertain destinations as opposed to detailed planning, sterile objectives, and over-analysis. Some excellent perspectives, and well worth reading.

On the downside, the book comes across as almost anti-objective decision making. I don't think this was Kay's intent, but I hoped the book would at some point go further in highlighting the value of using objective decision frameworks - even in instances whe
Mara Shaw
Apr 28, 2012 rated it it was ok
Remember the Smurfs? How half the words in their conversations were replaced with the word "smurf" or "smurfy"? John Kay has done something similar with "obliquity" and "oblique". Decisions that are made iteratively, with trial and error, employing emotion or intuition, or from going for greatness and reaping a side benefit of profits -- these are all oblique according to Kay. Quickly in the book, I was frustrated with the repetition, much as the Smurfs made me cringe.

Chapters 1 - 4 and "Conclus
Sabina Schmitz
Sep 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
In essence, John Kay showcases with various examples that there is no science to decision making. Most decisions are made obliquely.
Edit: I came back to change my rating to 5 stars because the echo of the book’s content resonated with me the longer I thought about it. We have very complex lives and assume that we know the direct path to success, when actually we’re just muddling through. The only way to prepare is to acquire and accumulate knowledge in the field of your pursuit. Acknowledging th
May 27, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: edification
Recommended. However, like many business and conceptually-driven academic books, the provocative concepts in the book make enduring the repetition and lack of stark definition worthwhile.

I am annoyed at the publisher and whatever writer from the Financial Times placed and wrote, respectively, the quote saying Kay was an excellent writer on the book's front cover. Unfortunately, Kay is not a great writer, as he failed to solve the problem of having an absorbing book spring out of concept that ar
Taylor Pearson
Dec 27, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: business, complexity
A convincing argument against setting long-term goals. This book took many of the learning of complexity science over the past few years and showed how many companies and individuals ignore them, to their detriment.

Great companies and lives are built not from un an erring focus on a long-range goal as many commentators would have you believe, but on an indirect and oblique approach that realizes reality is more complex than our reductionist plans would admit.
Tim Hughes
Apr 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
In this book “Obliquity” John Kay points out that actually objectives are a waste of time, what do I mean?

If we go back to 1940, Prime Minister Churchill stood up in the UK Parliament and said that the United Kingdom would be victorious. Which was a goal, but Churchill had no idea how he would reach that goal.

Think about it, the Nazis had pushed back the whole of the Europe onto the beaches of Dunkirk, the UK hadn’t prepared itself for war and especially a war over a highly efficient and overwhe
Jason Carter
Feb 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
"Read this book." -- Nassim Taleb, author of the Black Swan

That's on the cover, and it's as succinct a review as possible. I would agree with Taleb. I'd have given this book five stars for its content, except that a couple of chapters seemed repetitive and unnecessary.

Kay argues that the direct pursuit of a goal is often less likely to achieve its objectives than the indirect pursuit:

- An airplane manufacturer seeking to make excellent airplanes is more likely to maximize shareholder value than
May 29, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Well I read this book in more or less one sitting today. Couldn't put it down. I guess it has profoundly shaken some of my ideas about how to make good decisions, and I will have to weave it into my conflict work.It is a well written and persuasively argued case for going about achieving things indirectly, in an exploratory, provisional way. And this is necessary in business, in our own personal lives, in our attempts to become happy. Life is way too complex for our goals to be always clearly st ...more
Aug 02, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: nonfiction
If you are looking for the short version, another Brit gave us the same message: No, you can't always get what you want
But if you try sometime, you just might find
You get what you need

For the most part, obliquity seems to be pursuing goals that come from the heart rather than the pursuit of fame or fortune.

The book's set up: if you follow obliquity, it will get you the true measure of success. So as long as you are doing it for the right reasons, you will get wealthy, which was really the goal
Nov 20, 2011 rated it liked it
The book discusses on why an indirect/muddling through (or just oblique) way is better than a direct approach. For example, why paradoxically, the happiest people in the world arent pursuing happiness per se nor are the richest people on the world maximizing wealth per se...that happiness and wealth are often a by product of our passion/energy.

the book also advocates an present adaptive approach to achieving goals vs long term plan. I agree with this thinking. another thinking is to break down
Sep 28, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I read this book in Dutch (for I rated it as "okay" because the message is interesting, as are the examples but I didn't see the practicality of it. Even the chapter "Obliquity in practice" gave more arguments and not the "how to apply this" that I hoped for. Kay argues that often goals for success, happiness aren't reached directly but indirectly. People or companies that aim at being successful, often aren't so successful. I found the concept of Franklin's Gambit interestin ...more
Jul 28, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: audiobook, business, 2015
I didn't think I would like this book as much as I did. I'm not sure if I want to become an urban planner anymore now, after Mr. Kay describes the failures of planned development to keep up with the demands and changes to a city. If you go after a complex problem, especially one that will affect many people, you must be able to pivot if necessary, instead of going full speed ahead with a single preconceived solution.
Oct 08, 2017 rated it liked it
Suggested by Rory Sutherland this book would be five stars for someone unfamiliar with the ideas of bottom up/emergence, Nassim Taleb, complexity theory, or decision making. It's a great introduction to those ideas.
From the book, "If there is a one line explanation of the power of obliquity it would be - evolution is smarter than you are."
If that quote interests you - dive in.
Jan 14, 2015 rated it did not like it
Shelves: non-fiction
Would have made a good essay but instead we got an awfully, painfully even, padded out book.
Juan Chavez
Jul 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-2020
Thought this was a good book. Although it took some time to get into the flow. The central theme of the book can be summarized as know the game you are really in. Many companies get caught up in the game of profits and winning. those are external outcomes that generally lead to disaster. I relate it to Simon Sinek's know the game you are really in..know your why. For example, for technology the game we are really in is convenience. Not in building cool technology or in making profits. If we reme ...more
Samuel Mwangi
Jan 20, 2020 rated it really liked it
Roosevelt, like Lincoln before him, understood that the scope of his authority was inescapably limited by the imprecision of his objectives, the complexity of his environment, the unpredictability of the reactions of others and the open-ended nature of the problems he faced. All these factors mean that even the most powerful men in the world must proceed by choosing opportunistically from a narrow range of options.


But Tetlock’s most striking discovery is that although the foxes perform bett
Oct 23, 2020 rated it really liked it
As obvious as it may seem once you start seriously to think about the indirect achievement of goals, as much the practical application of "obliquity" is missing in our daily lives.

I came across “Obliquity” only after I had thought and read about the oblique in Architecture, where Claude Parent and Paul Virilio did groundbreaking work “to create an architecture of disequilibrium, in an attempt to bring the habitat into a dynamic era of the body in movement.” (See for example The Function of the
John Jacobi
May 08, 2017 rated it really liked it
Good ideas, bad writing: most of the book suffered from this unfortunate combination. It was also repetitive and could have been greatly condensed.

Still, the end of the book pulls everything together quite nicely, describing some of the principles of cultural evolution. To ask what a business is for, he says, might be comparable to asking what a tiger is for. Be forewarned, though, that these descriptions are not technical. For that other books on this topic are better: Cultural Evolution by Bo
Mark Mulvey
“If people are predictably irrational, perhaps they are not irrational at all: Perhaps the fault lies not with the world but with our concept of rationality. Perhaps we should think differently about how we really make decisions and solve problems.”

“Happiness is not achieved through the pursuit of happiness. The most profitable businesses are not the most profit oriented. The wealthiest people are not those most assertive in the pursuit of wealth. The greatest paintings are not the most accurate
Paul Whitla
Dec 14, 2019 rated it it was ok
The ultimate book made out of a short magazine article, expanded but without really adding anything new. Discusses the idea that sometimes approaching a problem head on and having a well defined plan in advance of action is maybe not the best approach. Instead being open to change and taking alternative 'oblique' routes is more likely to lead to success. Suffers from the same problem of much of Thomas Friedman's work which presents a single anecdotal case and then extrapolates this in to a gener ...more
Aaron Kuenn
Apr 23, 2019 rated it it was ok
Obliquity starts out with a good presentation of oblique approaches to solving problems. However, as Mr. Kay goes on, it becomes more clear that he is asserting oblique approaches because that is how he sees all problems - the evidence is picked and the logic is adjusted to prove this point (which just further supports that progressing directly in a planned manner is incorrect, because he's already "obliquely" decided this was the correct approach).

I would recommend the first 50 pages or so of t
Craig Becker
Mar 05, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Good book. It helped clarify about direct and indirect approaches and how and why it is more effective to go after goals indirectly. As he explained, understanding that the world is complex and all our decisions are iterative and must be continuously updated was helpful. It helped me understand that all decisions do not stay correct because they have to adapt because the world changes and also because we cannot know the responses to all else that is happening. Therefore, making good decisions de ...more
Intriguing points, little evidence

I really wanted this book to be successful. As a person somewhat familiar with complexity theory, the points Kay makes feel right. But the evidence provided is very limited.

The author handpicks various events and uses them to conclude his ideas are valid.

Unfortunately, I constantly had the feeling that an author claiming the exact opposite could use the same evidence successfully. That's how unrelated from the point the evidence seems.
Sam Klemens
Aug 05, 2018 rated it liked it
Ehhh.. I mean, good idea for a book but I think the whole message could have been contained in about 4.3 pages. Instead we got a bunch of stories and lessons about how you "should" lead your life, much of it being obvious common sense. Really, my strategy for how long to wait for the bus is correct? Swell, did I need to waste my life reading that in a book.

I think obliquity would have been a good magazine article, it didn't need to reach bookish levels.
Sabastian Hunt
Feb 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This book had one central idea: goals are best achieved indirectly. The author at times stretched to make his point but that didn't detract from the freshness of his thesis. The author says that problems that are able to be defined tand that have a finite number of solutions and a best solution can be met head on but for real life problems with an infinite number of possible solutions and no known best solution it is best to meet those problems obliquely. Another good reason given for approachin ...more
Omar Ismail
Feb 08, 2018 rated it liked it
Okay book, quick read. General theme is that the more abstract/high-level the goal (happiness, satisfaction, fulfillment) the less clear the path to get there, and the more one's focus ought to be directed on low level activities (family, friends, reading, gym, etc).
Albert Faber
Feb 14, 2018 rated it really liked it
About 3,5 star, really, but I overrated because I read it at a good time, working on a training. I’m well informed in terms of theory, but this easy to read book offers nice examples and generally a good entrance from theory to practice. Very useful for my own training!
Nov 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: great
Really good, engaging little look at lateral thinking and oblique approaches vs direct ones, as applied to decision making in business and life. With some outstanding, illuminating and memorable examples, and some entertaining potted histories of blue-chip enterprises that went brown-chip.
Maria Boghiu
Mar 15, 2019 rated it liked it
A poorer cousin of Tim Hardford's Messy. But maybe worth a read nonetheless, especially the second half. If you ignore the ostensive pushing of the word "obliquity". I just mentally replaced it with "tacit knowledge" and "muddling through" where appropriate.
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I was born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1948, and completed my schooling and undergraduate education in that city: I am fortunate to have lived most of my life in beautiful places. I went to the University of Edinburgh to study mathematics. But, after taking a subsidiary course in economics, I decided that I wanted to be an economist. The notion that one might understand society better through the ap ...more

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