Obliquity describes the process of achieving objectives indirectly, such as the financial success that comes from a real commitment to business. And obliquity is ubiquitous – it can even be applied to happiness. It has long been suspected that the happiest people are not those who pursue it directly. John Stuart Mill was the strongest exponent of utilitarianism, the notion that the goal of mankind was the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. Yet towards the end of his (far from happy) life, Mill found that ‘this end 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 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.’

Surely obliquity goes against everything we’ve been taught? Isn’t it true that you must do better if you set out to maximise something – happiness, wealth, profit – than if you don’t? Surprisingly, the answer is no. Life is too complex and uncertain for us to be able to predict and follow the most direct perceived route to success. Our knowledge is always imperfect, and events are influenced by the unpredictability of other people and organisations. Instead, our objectives are best achieved by a more meandering approach that enables us to adapt our strategy to changing situations. And we learn about the nature of our objectives and the means of achieving them through a process of experiment and discovery.

Management Today: Obliquity: the roundabout route to success

See also: Kay’s previous Financial Times article on the subject.

(via Relevant History)

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