Obliquity is a philosophical term meaning the act of meeting a goal through indirect, rather than direct means. In the simplest terms, the theory of obliquity states that the factors that cause any one event are so numerous and complexly connected that no event can be attributed to any one factor.
Therefore, direct action toward meeting a goal such as making money or working hard may not increase the likelihood of achieving it.
On the other hand, goal setting involves setting a specific, time targeted personal or business objective. In order for both short term and long term goals to be met, they must be SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time bound).
This underpins the fact that direct action towards meeting a goal makes it achieved. In proverbs 6, the Bible rebukes the man who prepares for nothing, calling him a “sluggard.”
In his book ‘The Goal’, Dr. Eliyahu introduces the theory of constraints where he states that, every complex system has at least one constraint and it’s the constraint that determines the ability of the system to be successful implying that, in many cases, the end justifies the means.
Basing on Eliyahu’s theory, obliquity is necessary because we live in a world of uncertainty and complexity; the problems we encounter aren’t always clear and we often can’t establish what our goals are anyway; circumstances change, people change and are frustratingly hard to predict. Direct approaches are often arrogant and unimaginative.
Our communities and even the human body are such complex systems and therefore goals involving them cannot be pursued successfully with a single-minded focus.
John Kay in his book ‘Obliquity – how our goals are best pursued indirectly’ states that ‘if you want to go in one direction, the best route may involve going in another’.
This is probably why the most profitable companies are not always the most profit-oriented; why the richest men and women are not the most materialistic; and why the happiest people are not necessarily those who focus on happiness.
John Kay claims that the concept of obliquity is especially useful in ventures that depend on the actions of other people, which can be very unpredictable, and in facing difficult problems.
Kay uses examples from history to back up his claim, especially battle strategies that proved successful in various wars, as well as examples found in nature. Kay states that forest fires, for instance, cannot be battled in straightforward manner and that attempts to do so have failed in many National Park Services of different countries.
In stating these contradicting ends, I fear that readers will see in them an excuse for not meeting obligations. Setting goals is serious business.
We ought not to be so anxious about life that we make rigid plans which are beyond our capacity to keep, nor should we be so lazy as to make no plans at all.
Rather, keep in mind that beyond our own plans, there are other oblique factors that lead to achievement of our goals.
Seth K Buhigiro is a social commentator