Chase your goals – in the opposite direction

Published by Tony Quinlan on

One of the key concepts in dealing with complexity is the need to be indirect in pursuit of our goals.  I often refer to John Kay's book Obliquity – but here is the original article from the Financial Times from 2004 on the topic. 

It suggests an idea that is very difficult to anyone who holds to beliefs that things are ordered and repeatable – that process and best/good practice are valid – and who doesn't perceive the shift to other, more complex environments. 

Oblique approaches are most effective in difficult terrain, or where
outcomes depend on interactions with other people. Obliquity is the idea
that goals are often best achieved when pursued indirectly.
Obliquity is characteristic of systems that are complex, imperfectly
understood, and change their nature as we engage with them.

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.


Kay uses forest fires as an example of a complex situation – and illustrates new approaches and flexibility needed as overly fixed procedures cannot cope with the evolving situation.

But, lest hardline managers dismiss this approach as not business-oriented, he then goes on to use ICI and its rapid demise as a good example of how direct pursuit of a goal – in this case shareholder value – can be highly negative, not just in terms of unintended consequences, but also in terms of the goal itself.

Success 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 article is all-round excellent, covering issues on causality vs correlation, the problems associated with Collins & Porras' Good to Great research approaches, and far more. 


Obliquity is relevant whenever complex systems evolve in an uncertain
environment, and whenever the effect of our actions depends on the ways
in which others respond to them. There is a role for carrots and sticks,
but to rely on carrots and sticks alone is effective only when we
employ donkeys and when goals are simple. Directness is appropriate.
When the environment is stable, objectives are one dimensional and
transparent, and it is possible to determine when and whether goals have
been achieved. Obliquity is inevitable when the environment is complex
and changing, purposes are multiple and conflicting, and when we cannot
tell, even with hindsight, whether they have been fulfilled.