When solving a problem or working toward a goal, going the direct route can actually be more complicated and less successful than taking a more circuitous route.
That’s the unconventional technique suggested by John Kay, in his short, engaging book that takes a conversational approach to an often esoteric and academic topic.
Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly (Penguin Press, 228 pp., $25.95) isn’t as chatty as the works of Malcolm Gladwell. However, the author uses lots of historical and modern examples to illustrate his points. Fortunately, he doesn’t get bogged down in academic jargon.
Kay, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics, notes that the most successful businesses aren’t the ones that say the primary goal is to make large profits and bring value to their shareholders. Rather, the best ones aim for quality products and customer service. The revenues will follow.
The key, he argues, is to think big. More precisely, focus on high-level objectives that you then break down into goals and actions.
The same works in personal matters, and Kay dismisses the notion that people should aim to live happy lives.
“Happiness is where you find it, not where you look for it. The shortest crossing of America was found by seekers of gold, not explorers of oceans. The discovery of happiness, like the discovery of new territory, is usually oblique,” he writes.
When examining effective decision makers, he cites the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction between foxes and hedgehogs.
Foxes move speedily and obliquely and don’t view experiences through the prism of one idea. They are also aware of what they don’t know. Hedgehogs, by contrast, move through the world in a slower, more direct manner. They are often convinced they know all, or at least many, of the answers to the important questions.
Kay uses the late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a quintessential hedgehog, as a case study.
He was right about the seminal issue of his time, the threat of the Nazi regime to the survival of Western civilization. He had Hitler’s number early on and worked hard to get leaders in Britain (he was a member of Parliament when Hitler came to power) and elsewhere to take action. Yet, he didn’t have an overall plan to achieve his goals. Instead he devised smaller scale plans that set the stage for larger events, such as the U.S. entry into World War II.
Kay argues that successful business and political leaders understand that their authority is limited by the often imprecise nature of their goals and open-ended nature of the problems on their plate. And the key to success is “choosing opportunistically from a narrow range of options.”
That’s sound advice as credit unions and other financial institutions face a challenging regulatory and consumer environment. Executives who read Obliquity will have fun and, more importantly, be able to more effectively navigate those choppy waters.