Taking the oblique route is the fastest way to business success

OBLIQUITY
BY JOHN KAY
Profile Books, £8.99

HAPPINESS is not achieved by trying to be happy – it is a question of pursuing other ends. Achieving them makes you happy. Take having children. Break it down into the nappy changing, sleepless nights and messy meal-times and you might wonder what exactly makes it an enjoyable experience, but most people say it is the best of their life. Or look at mountain-climbing: it's a miserable slog, but for some reason makes people incredibly happy.

Obvious? Perhaps, but for John Kay, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics and a fellow of St John’s Oxford, these examples contain a profound truth about the world, which is explained by the concept of “obliquity” – or obliqueness. Put simply, the idea is that the world is complicated and most goals that are worth achieving are not achieved through direct routes. The world is not like a Sudoku puzzle, with comprehensible rules. The key concept comes from Benjamin Franklin, who saw that human beings tend to rationalise everything with hindsight but that it does not follow that we can know beforehand what route we need to follow to achieve a goal. A mathematician can describe the arc of a David Beckham free kick with a formula, but it doesn’t follow that Beckham solved that equation when he struck the ball. In the deathless words of the footballer, he “just hit it”. Plans and goals are pretty useless. Muddling through is far more likely to get results.

Obliquity might be a terrible name, but it is a brilliant concept and is especially useful in business. Often, people look at successful businesses and try to extract rules that were supposedly followed. But in fact, says Kay, all good decision-making is a messy process. Governments and businesses feel that they need to show the pretence of following rules, but that is just because they think they should. In fact trial and error, experiment and obliquity are the way to get good results.

We all know that reams and reams of banking regulations are not the way to create a secure banking system. And the most successful businesses aim for excellence, not dividend maximisation – not something those peddlers of books promising five, 10 or 20 rules for success would want you to believe, but so be it. This is an elegant, simple book and, rarely for a business book, is written by a man who actually understands the academics and philosophers he quotes. The best nine quid you’ll spend this year.

Jeremy Hazlehurst