Recognizing Obliquity

… a core concept in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109

ObliquityConcept description

Economist John Kay (reference below) defines obliquity as the idea that complex goals are often best pursued indirectly.

Kay says:

“In general, oblique approaches recognise that complex objectives tend to be imprecisely defined. These objectives contain many elements that aren’t necessarily or obviously compatible with each other. Furthermore, we learn about the nature of the objectives and the means of achieving them during a process of experiment and discovery.”

Kay suggests that obliquity helps us understand the nature of happiness and cites John Stuart Mill, who wrote in his autobiography towards the end of his life that:

[Happiness] was only to be attained by not making it the direct end. Those only are happy (I thought) who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness: on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.”

Kay applies the concept of obliquity to problem solving:

“Mostly, we solve problems obliquely. Our approaches are iterative and adaptive. We make our choices from a limited range of options. Our knowledge of the relevant information and of what information is relevant, is imperfect. Different people will make different judgments in the same situation, not just because they have different objectives, but because they observe different options, select different information, and assess that information differently: and even with hindsight it will often not be possible to say who was right and who was wrong. In a necessarily uncertain world, a good decision doesn’t necessarily lead to a good outcome, and a good outcome doesn’t necessarily imply a good decision, or a capable decision maker. The notion of a best solution may itself be misconceived.

“… Good decision makers are balancing incompatible and incommensurable objectives. They are eclectic and tend to regard consistency as a make of stubbornness, or ideological blindness, rather than a virtue. Rationality is not defined by good processes, irrationality lies in persisting with methods and actions that plainly do not work – including the methods and actions that commonly masquerade as rationality.”

This can be summarized in the following table:

Comparing direct action with obliquity
Direct action

Objectives are clear

Systems are comprehensible

We know the available options

What happens happens because someone intended it

Rules can define the system

Direction provides order

Good decisions are the product of good processes


We learn about our objectives as we strive for them

Systems are complex and depend on unpredictable reactions

We can consider only a few possibilities

There is no clear link between intention and outcome

Expertise is required, tacit knowledge is essential

Order often emerges and is achieved spontaneously

Good decisions are the product of good judgment


John Kay (2010), Think oblique: How our goals are best reached indirectly, Independent, at, accessed 28 February 2016.

John Kay, Obliquity: How Complex Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly, TEDx Talk, at, accessed 31 December 2015.

John Kay on Obliquity, banking and money, podcast at Frisby’s Bulls And Bears,, accessed 31 December2015.

John Kay (2010), Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly, Profile, London.

Atlas topic and subject

Handling Complexity (core topic) in Leadership Skills.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 29 February 2016.

Image:, at, accessed 28 February 2016.