Obliquity – Why our goals are best achieved indirectly – 2010


Obliquity Cover Image

Obliquity is the principle that complex goals are best achieved indirectly.  This book explains why the happiest people aren’t necessarily those who focus on happiness, and how the most successful cities aren’t planned (look at Paris versus Brasilia).  And if a company announces shareholder return as its number one goal, perhaps we should beware: the most profit-orientated companies aren’t usually the most profitable.

Paradoxical as it sounds, if you want to go in one direction, the best route may involve going in another.  Using dozens of intriguing examples, Obliquity explains how. The Panama Canal, for instance, follows the shortest crossing of America; and yet it starts by following a south-easterly direction. The shortest straight line running from east to west goes through Nicaragua, and this ‘direct’ route is much longer.  The people who first found this route weren’t looking west, and they were looking for silver and gold – not oceans.

Charles Darwin weighed up scientifically the pros and cons of a happy marriage – but it was Emma Wedgwood who swept him off his feet.  Some of the most surprising examples come from the world of business.  At one time Boeing’s leaders would ‘eat, breathe, and sleep the world of aeronautics’.  The company created the 747 and its fortunes soared.  When in 1998 it shifted focus to shareholder return and return on investment the company, well, took a dive.

And John explains the ‘why?’ and the ‘how?’  Obliquity is necessary because we live in an world of uncertainty and complexity; the problems we encounter aren’t always clear – and we often can’t pinpoint what our goals are anyway; circumstances change; people change – and are infuriatingly hard to predict; and direct approaches are often arrogant and unimaginative (Did Le Corbusier really think people would ever feel at home in his ‘machines for living in’?)  John shows how we can apply the principle of obliquity to our own lives (why ‘muddling through’ can sometimes be the answer).

In Su Doku the world is certain and static – and people act as if the world is too, taking the direct approach.  But the challenges in our lives are not the same as those of Su Doku.  So often it’s the oblique approach which turns up trumps. Today, we face unprecedented problems: environmental, political, economic, social – and personal.  It’s time we thought obliquely.

You can order Obliquity in paperback now for £8 (incl. p&p to the UK and Europe).

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