Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly


Obliquity describes the process in which complex objectives are typically best reached indirectly. Complexity typically is not easily defined and the environment is uncertain. This is why oblique practices tend to move backwards at first but end up being the fastest route

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Key Takeaways

  1. Goals are often best achieved without intending them. Happiness, profits, and more come as a byproduct, not as the sole focus
  2. If people are predictably irrational, maybe there is something wrong with our model of rationality and not something wrong with the world
  3. Problem solving in a CAS is best done through an iterative and adaptive approach, not a master plan that is direct
  4. Happiness is not merely the sum aggregate of happy moments, but much more than that. It takes meaning and difficulty into account. Climbing Mt. Everest is not pleasant but it may bring long term happiness. Happiness is where you find it, not where you look for it
  5. Oblique company motives tend to bring the greatest profit. When Boeing was focused on love of planes and solving complex technological challenges, it was far more successful than when it took the direct route of solving for shareholder value
  6. A company whose purpose is profit cannot help but veer towards greed and poor behavior. It also conspire bad feelings amongst the public who will seek to bring it down when it can. Rather, it needs to be a commitment to and passion for the business itself
  7. The solution to complex problems lies in affectively managing the inter-relationships between Basic actions intermediate goals and long-term vision
  8. Practical decision making is by definition oblique. It is too complex to take a direct and simple route. It will often appear obvious and direct after the fact, but this isn’t true beforehand
  9. The outcome of what we do depends on how we do it
  10. Problems can never be fully understood. On top of that, we can’t come to understand what the right answers are but even what are the right questions
  11. Those who face adversity often get credit and acclaim while those who avoid it altogether are never congratulated although they tend to end up better off
  12. Evolution is smarter than humans and it uses adaptation and iteration. Copy nature. Don’t fight her
  13. Experienced obliquity often beats out disciplined directness. The world is too complex, problems to varied and nuanced. We know more than we could ever tell or fully explain
  14. The successful decision makers do not see the future perfectly, they simply are adept at matching their own and their organization’s capabilities with the context / problems / opportunities at hand
  15. The idea of a perfect solution may be misguided. It may be so context dependent that the slightest changes alter the best path forward. Good decision is oblique because it is iterative and experimental, it constantly adapts as new information becomes available and much of this info comes from the decision making process itself. Obliquity is the best approach whenever the context changes based on a complex environment

What I got out of it

  1. The direct approach to solving a problem would be the most efficient if we perfectly understood the problem we’re solving, the path forward and how others will react to this path. In a more realistic scenario where we have imperfect information and the solution is found through adaptation and iteration, an oblique (roundabout) approach is optimal

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