Emergic: Rajesh Jain's Blog

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January 25th, 2004 · No Comments

Suhit Anantula, who has an excellent blog on Rural India, points to an article by John Kay on Obliquity. Writes Kay:

Strange as it may seem, overcoming geographic obstacles, winning decisive battles or meeting global business targets are the type of goals often best achieved when pursued indirectly. This is the idea of Obliquity. Oblique approaches are most effective in difficult terrain, or where outcomes depend on interactions with other people.

If you want to go in one direction, the best route may involve going in the other. Paradoxical as it sounds, goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly. So the most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented, and the happiest people are not those who make happiness their main aim. The name of this idea? Obliquity.

Obliquity is characteristic of systems that are complex, imperfectly understood, and change their nature as we engage with themSuccess through obliquity is a product of natural selection in an uncertain, but competitive, environment. It is almost certainly true that, on average, profit-oriented companies are more profitable than less profit-oriented companies. It is very likely that on average people who are interested in money are richer than people who are not. But at the same time that the most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented, the richest people are not those most interested in money. Outstanding success is the product of obliquity.

The distinction between intent and outcome is central to obliquity. Wealth, family relationships, employment all contribute to happiness but these activities are not best conducted with happiness as their goal. The pursuit of happiness is a strange phrase in the US constitution because happiness is not best achieved when pursued. A satisfying life depends above all on building good personal relationships with other people – but we entirely miss the point if we seek to develop these relationships with our personal happiness as a primary goal.

This is one of the most thoughtful articles I have read in recent times. It echoes a lot of what I feel I didnt have a name to describe it. Now I do.

Tags: Management

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