Indirect decision making

People who pursue happiness as a goal in itself are not the people most likely to find it; happiness is one of the many things in life which happens as a by-product of our other actions, according to economist John Kay in his book Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly. The most profit-oriented businesses are not the most profitable; the best paintings are not the most accurate representations of their subjects; the most meticulously planned economies are less successful than disorganised adaptive economies.

The book contrasts the characteristics of direct decision making with those of indirect or oblique decision making. In situations where the goals are clear and the systems for achieving them well-known and predictable, then direct decision making works. But where the goals are unclear, the environment unpredictable, the problems poorly defined, and systems unknown, then oblique decision making, which involves an adaptive trial-and-error approach, is more suitable.

Many of the examples cited in the book will be familiar to those who have read the works of Jim Collins, Malcolm Gladwell and other writers, from whose ideas the author has borrowed liberally. The author has made some factual errors (for example, referring to Mobutu Sese Seko as “Setse Mobutu” and saying that he died in office, whereas he was deposed before his death), and there is some amount of repetition.

The book is sufficiently brief and interesting to be consumed in one sitting, but is it useful to business leaders? Bad managers who fail to investigate the options before making decisions may find some comfort in the oblique decision-making process, but the author is not really advocating taking short-cuts or ignoring available information; he is simply giving managers permission to make experimental decisions when clear outcomes are not discernable.

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