Tuesday, 24 January 2012


Over the winter break I spotted a copy of John Kay’s 2010 book “Obliquity” on the shelf in Waterstones. Intrigued I bought a copy and found it well argued and insightful. Having read few damning reviews on Amazon I decided to write my own oblique (ie: 1*) response:

If you’re like me then you’re reading the one-star reviews of this book to compare them with the five-star reviews to gauge the most convincing arguments. In that case let me try to explain why, in this singular instance, a one-star rating - in an entirely oblique way - is the only sensible rating to give John Kay’s excellent - yes Excellent - book.

When reading reviews there quickly comes a point when there is little necessity in reading yet another rave review - just buy the book. On the other hand, a negative criticism might actually reveal an underlying flaw that jars with your own values and perceptions and would thus make reading the book a pointless and wasteful exercise. According to Kay’s insight, this very strategy, of skipping directly to the criticisms, can be considered a prime example of obliquity ie: of taking a lateral route to make an evaluation about a potential expenditure of energy, money or time.

Despite whatever criticisms might be thrown at this book, the overall argument is a vitally important one: high-level objectives are difficult to attain because they invariably involve extreme complexity and uncertainty and it makes little sense therefore to attempt to achieve them by direct means. Kay provides a variety of examples from a range of fields to explore this thesis and he analyses the point from a number of differing perspectives and gives nuanced arguments to back his claims.

If you already agree with the underlying thesis and you’re not interested in any of the explanations then clearly this book is not for you. If however, you are intrigued about how the pursuit of high-level objectives can go so disastrously wrong and why a more modest focus on intermediate goals is often so much more effective then this book might well be worth a few of your pennies.

Some highlights (not in the Amazon review):

“I think that obliquity is a process of experiments and discovery. Successes and failures and the expansion of knowledge lead to reassessment of our objectives and goals and the actions that result.”

“We not only lack fixed criteria of what constitutes greatness in poetry: to have such criteria would be to miss a vital component of poetic greatness. When we describe a great poem, we use words like freshness and originality. Great poets do not necessarily conform to the accepted concepts of what constitutes great poetry. They not only break the rules, they redefine them. Such obliquity is a key part of what makes poets great.”

“We don’t reach decisions about how to behave, what should go into a poem, what to teach or how to run a company as a result of performing some direct process that begins with abstract speculation about these large and general questions. We reach these decisions through an oblique process of negotiation, adaptation and compromise. As a result, these decisions will be resolved in different ways by different people at different times.”

“The human mind is programmed to look for patterns and to seek causes, and this approach is often valuable. But that programming leads us to see patterns in random events and to attribute intentions where none existed. We believe we observe directness in obliquity.”

“Surely you must do better if you intend to achieve something than if you don’t? The metaphor of the Blind watchmaker illustrates that the answer to that question is often no. If the environment is uncertain, imperfectly understood and is constantly changing, the product of a process of adaptation and evolution may be better adapted to the environment than the product of conscious design.”

“We devote hours of staff evaluations, quality assessments and risk reporting, but these hours are not really devoted to evaluation, assessment or reporting: they are spent ticking boxes, and our personal judgements, our assessments and our risk management are based on other criteria.”

“Mostly, we actually solve problems obliquely. Our approaches are iterative and adaptive. We make our choices from a limited range of options. Our knowledge of the relevant information, and of what information is relevant, is imperfect. Different people will form different judgements in the same situation, not just because they have different objectives are because they observe different opinions, select different information and assess the information differently: and even with hindsight it will often not be possible to say who was right and who was wrong. In a necessarily uncertain world, a good decision doesn’t necessarily lead to a good outcome, and a good outcome doesn’t necessarily imply a good decision or a capable decision maker. The notion of the best solution may itself be misconceived.[my emphasis]

Klein’s paramedics and firefighters became competent by learning the rules and became good through practice.”

“When faced with the task that daunts you, a project that you find difficult, begin by doing something.”

“Obliqity doesn’t mean that we should stop thinking about objectives, fail to examine options or omit to seek information and understand as best we can in the complex systems that we deal with. Far from it: we should start and continue. The alternative to a ‘rational’ process of defining objectives, evaluating options, modelling consequences is an approach that is oblique, but truly based on reason and evidence.”

“To call these processes “intuition” is to miss the central point, which is that what we are describing as “intuition” is based on evidence and evaluation and is repeatedly successful when practised by Beckham, an experienced art curator or Picasso – and not successful at the feet, or in the hands or minds, of amateur footballers, casual gallery visitors all weekend artists. The more we practice the better our judgements.”


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