We believe that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line; however, sometimes it is a curve. According to John Kay, many goals are achieved when pursued indirectly: The most profitable companies are not the most aggressive in chasing profits, the wealthiest men and women are not the most materialist, and the happiest people do not pursue happiness.
This is the concept of obliquity. John Kay, in his book “Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly” tries to evaluate rational thinking processes versus obliquity.
He gives several interesting examples.
Happiness is not achieved through the pursuit of happiness. Mountaineering is one of the most difficult sports, seldom bring medals and often requires much money and effort and sometimes at the cost of one’s life. Raising a child is very similar to mountaineering; 95 percent of the time parents put a lot of effort into dealing with the needs and problems of the children and only 5 percent of the time can they feel the joy of having children.
There are three phases of happiness. The first phase is a momentary feeling. It is like eating the cake, for which the taste is fleeting. The second phase is the state of the mind, like feeling good when you help somebody. In this phase the period of happiness lasts a little longer, however, it is still very short. The third phase is eudaimonia, which is the happiness we feel when we fulfill our potential. It is something akin to being a good parent or climbing a mountain. With reference to this model, an oblique-indirect approach might provide more and long lasting happiness for people. It is best to prefer fishing as an experience rather than the outcome of catching 100 fish because the journey is more important than the destination.
Kay claims that the greatest paintings are not the most accurate representations of their subjects. In the case of Picasso he is right because none of his paintings are accurate representations.
In general, planning is something like drawing a straight line between two points; however, the performance of classic planning is very poor. The oblique way of planning looks much better. Soviet planners managed the economy far less successfully than the adaptive, disorganized processes of market economies.
Most of our objectives are specific. Even if they look good, specific objectives can create limitations. For example, if you plan to eat a fish for dinner and if you cannot eat it you will be disappointed. However, if you only aim to eat dinner, there are unlimited options available to you. The best available meal might be something different and if you insist on the fish, you may end up having to settle for ordinary or low quality fish.
Kay mentions that the consequences of our actions depend on the responses of other people, and these interact. So, in an incident where you might be angry, if you choose to be positive and kind, you will find people might be willing to help you. But in the direct way, if you are angry you become aggressive and it won’t help solve your problem.
According to Kay, in obliquity there are no predictable connections between intentions and outcomes. The caterpillar and the butterfly have nothing in common in their appearances; however, the caterpillar is the starting point of a butterfly.
Kay mentions that good decision makers are eclectic and tend to regard consistency as a mark of stubbornness, or ideological blindness, rather than a virtue. Eclectic thinking means connecting and adding different concepts in order to create a better model to solve a problem. In order to solve a problem, a decision maker may use some concepts that seem to be conflicting. Ordinary people might evaluate this approach as irrational; however, at the end it might provide the desired results.