Achieving goals indirectly
Business writer John Kay’s latest tome Obliquity is an intriguing counterblast to the strident, can do, macho posturing that blights many business books. Pointing out that sometimes the conventional solutions are the wrong ones and that plans fail as often as they succeed, Kay defines obliquity as the principle that goals are often best achieved indirectly. Brasilia, he points out, was a perfectly planned city yet most of us would rather live in charming, unplanned Paris. Consider Boeing. Inspired by a love of aviation, rather than a quest for profit, the company’s founder Bill Allen built Boeing into the most commercially successful aircraft company. But in the 1990s, new boss Phil Condit refocused the business around value, unit costs, return on investment and other entirely rational criteria. The result? Boeing’s order book was soon smaller than Airbus’s.
The direct approach can work, Kay says, when the environment is stable, objectives are one-dimensional and transparent and we can determine whether goals have been achieved. But that isn’t too common in business today. In which case, Kay says, “muddling through – a process of building out from the current situation step-by-step” can sometimes be the answer.