Obliquity

Link: My Amazon Review is here, should you wish to vote on its usefulness.

On the cover of Obliquity, John Kay’s new book (hardback edition), Tim Harford pronounces it “persuasive”. Yet Harford’s subsequent column in the FT on March the 18th, 2010, titled “Political Ideas Need Proper Testing” suggested that he is far from persuaded by Mr Kay’s argument. That wasn’t a good start to reading this book.

John Kay’s core thesis is that that in any setting, there are multiple, often conflicting, goals; and that instead of a linear rational model, the best approach to problem-solving is oblique, an approach for which he coins the neologism ‘obliquity’.

The book is organised in three parts. Part one explains how the world abounds in obliquity, citing specifically how success in finding happiness and profits (in a business setting) does not come from direct pursuits, and how the rich people are not the most materialistic. There are amusing stories but Mr Kay cherry-picks the arguments, that bolster his thesis, and ignores how some of the least materialistic rich men cited were also single-minded in their pursuit of money.

Part two explains why problems cannot be solved directly. Here he dwells upon how rational models fail to capture the real dynamics of political decision making. He devotes time to demonstrating why this is the case where plural outcomes may exist, and complexity and incompleteness may mar our understanding of the problem. He also proposes that obliquity is a better term for Charles Lindblom’s coinage,”muddling through”, as an explanation of political decision making. Further he makes the case that the more one participates in or studies something, the better one understands and abstracts its complexity, its essence. Having spent several years in my doctoral research on political decision making, I felt he picked once again Lindblom because it is amenable to his thesis. Several better explanations of political decision-making have followed Lindblom’s and they cover more ground than Mr Kay does in this section of the book.

The third section, comprising shorter chapters, explains problem-solving in a complex world using stories from the real world. This was the quickest read in the book yet I found myself feeling dragged through it. Stories from several unconnected walks of life are great for anecdotes and dinner party conversation, but make a book feel like a jigsaw being forced together

To those given to seeking single labels for people, it is seductive to see Mr Kay as an economist. His wider philosophical grounding and interest is visible in the book as he illustrates his points using examples from history, urban design, football and evolutionary theory amongst others. Yet despite such ambition and possibility, the book is perhaps best described as a “light” read. One gets the feeling that Mr Kay tried to do a Gladwell on the topics of complexity and decision making but did not get far enough.

Star rating: 3 out of 5

Usefulness note: Probably a good read for a long-haul flight but not very strongly recommended if you have better options.

2 thoughts on “Obliquity

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Obliquity | Creaking Book Shelves -- Topsy.com

  2. I had in mind to read his book since reading the FT review a few weeks ago. His thesis — that pursuing goals obliquely is often the better approach — appeals to me, even if only in certain cases. Applying Obliquity to business strategy (can one ‘apply’ obliquity anyway?) may not go down well in the stricter business-driven organizations that are driven by top-down agendas, but it sounds appealing in some aspects. Skunk-works projects are one example. However, I wonder if one can generalize the approach.

    I would read the book but for the less-than-enthusiastic review.

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