Obliquity and management


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As part of a “Business Ethics” course I am taking at my AGSM MBA I came across this fascinating article by John Kay titled:  “The role of business in society”. It deals with the long lasting debate surrounding the role of business – to make profits or to be a good corporate citizen. It is an interesting look at the debate and I think it makes some valid points, even though I think in its essence it does not contribute something very new to the discussion. However, one concept in the article made me reach a revelation, the principle of obliquity:

I call this paradox the principle of obliquity. It says that some objectives are best pursued indirectly… We are all familiar with one application of the principle of obliquity. While Americans, characteristically, talk of the pursuit of happiness, happiness is rarely best achieved when it is pursued. Research in social psychology confirms our intuition and experience. Happy people are not, in the main, those who selfishly promote their own interests: in fact happy people are most often characterized by a kind of uncalculating and outgoing generosity

In a later article, titled: “The oblique approach”, Kay writes the following things:

With maturity – personal or corporate – comes the principle of obliquity. Goals are often best achieved indirectly. Many people have noted the paradox that the most profitable companies are not necessarily the most profit oriented

It is so inspiring to read something that actually makes you feel: “wow”. And that is the way I felt when I was reading about this concept. So many times during my life I was told that the first thing we should do is concentrate on the goals and try to align ourselves with them. Why, I taught it myself a number of times. And it is true. And useful. And effective.

But not always. Because sometimes the best way to reach a goal is to reach it indirectly. We all know that sometime we are so obsessed with something that we hurt our chances of actually gaining it. When we let go, it somehow comes naturally. And I know it sounds very Hollywood-Movie like. But it actually happens.  

Think about it. When do you learn the most? When you are sitting in class actually trying to learn or when you are doing something and the learning comes as a side effect? Most people say that the most they learned it from the indirect learning – from other people, from doing, from watching – and not in formal courses. Or from failing. Could you imagine that? Those of us who learned how to drive know that the best teacher of driving is the road. Once you start driving, it actually teaches you about how to drive.

And this concept is so true in so many business settings. And it explains why many of the conventional wisdoms are just wrong! Would the manager help his flowers more by solving their problems or by letting them reach the answers by themselves? If you want to improve the performance of your team do you focus your managerial attention on your strongest people or on your weakest people? The answer to both of these questions is the indirect answer. Don’t give answers and the strongest people. or just think about Judo Strategy, and its claim that sometimes we don’t need to attack by pushing, but by pulling. Or by substituting effort for ability.

I am not saying that the answer to each and every problem is the indirect approach. But when we realize that the direct approach is not working, why not try to attack the challenges we face indirectly. It could be a powerful tool. After all, as Abraham Maslow said: “When your only tool is a hammer every problem looks like a nail“.


One Response to “Obliquity and management”

  1. Who is first? « The Comparative Advantage Says:

    […] The customer comes first. Yes. We need to think about the bottom line and profit. But as I wrote in Obliquity and management, sometimes the best way to reach your goal is the indirect way. And in this case, the indirect way […]

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