Obliquity: Why You Shouldn’t Behave Economically..

Hello there. It’s been a little while since I’ve posted. Sorry about that. Been busy at work, doing a variety of new business bits and bobs, along with trying to hire a Junior Planner for the burgeoning department.

One of the more fun things which has happened has been getting a book budget (a bit sad, but very exciting if, like me, there’s a lot you want to read). And, one of the first books on the list was Obliquity by John Kay, which has been oft-trumpeted by the IPA.

Now, if you click on book’s link, you’ll find it’s had a bit of a panning by certain people, who claim the book only contains one idea. Well, they aren’t wrong. And, it is short. That said, I wasn’t expecting more than an idea in 180 pages.

Anyway, on with the review. Kay merges some of Taleb’s Black Swan thinking with Kahnemann et al (which makes sense, as an former think-tank employee and a senior financier) to come up with the central hypothesis about life and problem solving. Essentially, all what he calls ‘high level objectives’ (life objectives like being successful/happy et al) are best achieved indirectly. Life, for Kay, is too complex to try and map a direct solution onto it.

Most people, in his view, after they have achieved something, back their opinions up with post-rationalisation (sound familiar, planner folk?) as they can’t adequately explain all of the factors which governed what they did. He calls this Franklin’s Gambit, in homage to Ben Franklin, who wrote about how he made moral decisions:

“Divide half a sheet of paper by a line into two columns; writing over the one Pro, and over the other Con. Then, during three or four days’ consideration, I put down under the different heads short hints of the different motives, that at different times occur to me for or against the measure.

“When I have got them all together in one view, I endeavour to estimate the respective weights… I have found great advantage for this kind of equation, in what may be called moral or prudential algebra.”

This was known as Franklin’s Rule, but it is rarely so black and white as that when dealing with major corporations, government or the like – decisions have already been made internally, or a narrow picture has been painted and acted upon, so any work done creating models or the like is simply justifying the decision that’s already been made.

Does this sound familar to anyone who works in oooh, Advertising, PR or Management Consultancy? Kay preaches the need to get started, to focus on those small tasks which work towards the larger goal; new problems and thoughts will occur.

I’m somewhat divided by this book; part of me thinks it’s terrific, and a very good justification for trying, failing and carrying on, and has useful ammunition to stop clients deciding that the communications solution is black before they’ve ever contemplated white.

The more cynical side to me agrees with the Amazon critics; for all its worthy case studies and writing, it does essentially play the same note throughout the whole book. Yes, of course people act with a sense of pluralism – no-one (save the brain damaged) can focus wholly on one goal and never be shifted. Real life’s not like that; a small child could let you know that it’s not fair, never mind a FT columnist/former Director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies.

I would say to you (whoever ‘you’ are) to have a look at it – particularly if you’ve not dealt with many big corporations in your time; it’s a welcome voice of sanity when it comes to goal setting and focusing attention on getting the small things right as an absolute necessity. It also does a good job of justifying some of the more obscure bits of Planning, in my opinion; i’m not surprised the IPA liked it so much.