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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 16 February 2012

"Obliquity" by John Kay

"Why our goals are best achieved indirectly."

Kay cleverly starts with what he calls "Franklin's Gambit". This is the assertion that we do not base our decisions on good reasons but that whatever we decide, we will subsequently find good reasons for backing our decision. This makes it hard to criticise this book. I didn't like it. Here are my reasons. But are they post hoc justifications for my instinctive dislike or are they the reasons which genuinely led up to my disliking this book?

I didn't like this book because I am suspicious of his evidence base. Like many such popular treatises he bases his arguments on selected anecdotes. As an economist he starts with examples where great businesses decide to focus on 'maximising shareholder value' and, he claims as a consequence' lost their way. He includes Boeing, ICI, Marks and Spencer and Merck as well as less known companies such as Litton Industries. But many great organisations lose their way and decline, partly because they fail to adapt to changing circumstances and partly no doubt purely because of regression to the mean. He is no doubt correct to analyse the failure of lobster fishery Prelude Corporation as down to the attempt to impose management methods from other industries to their own. As he points out: "You don't make fish, you hunt it. Your success depends on the flair, skills and initiative of people who cannot be effectively supervised" (p27).

He then broadens his argument to include Lenin's direct approach to modernising Russia and Le Corbusier's architecture to suggest that the direct approach to solving problems is always worse than the oblique approach. He suggests that anyone who believes that they can control a society or a complex business is both arrogant and unimaginative. And it is true that the Soviet Union collapsed and that many modernist buildings have been demolished. But Lenin and Stalin did (albeit brutally) drag a bankrupt, defeated, peasant nation into the industrial age despite the appalling trauma of the second world war.

Kay accepts that people need goals and objectives. But he seems to suggest that the goals should always be slightly off-target. Thus in golf: "you can only swing well when you can swing without thinking  about it" (p43) which reminded me of Ian Botham's advice to partner Graham Dilley as they went out to bat with England following on and facing an innings defeat at Headingley in 1981: "Let's give it some humpty."

For Kay, the way to success is 'Muddling Through' and this does strike a chord with me. Kay equates muddling through with evolutionary adaptation which he sees as a slow, small step, incremental process. Darwinian Natural Selection, Kay points out, has no designer, no watchmaker (not even a blind one). And (going back to Frankiln's Gambit) teleological explanations for success are flawed: giraffes have long necks because they have long necks. "We find intentionality and design where there is only chance and improvisation; directness where there is obliquity." (p118)

Kay has a lot of good points but he over eggs the pudding. He quotes Lord Kelvin as saying that "when you cannot measure something ... 'your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind'" (p71); Kay damns this as leading "directly to the modern curse of bogus quantification." (p71) But while he is correct to mock indices for things such as happiness this should not mean that you should fail to measure that which can and should be measured.

He makes an interesting point about optimism which goes against the prevailing wisdom that optimists are always the great winners who live longer and succeed more. He quotes Admiral James Stockdale who survived lengthy captivity as a Vietnamese prisoner and who observed that "those who died were typically optimists" (p126) because the dashing of their hopes left them nothing left to live for. Optimists need resilience it seems.

He admires the "pragmatic improvisation" (p128) of F D Roosevelt and gives him the line: 'Try something. If it fails admit it frankly and try another'; I had always been told that it was Truman who said apropos his policies: 'We'll just try them and if they don't work we'll try something else.'

He rightly complains about consistency and precedent. How often have I longed for a politician to say 'I've changed my mind'; this would be a sign of strength rather than the weakness the political journalists suggest. And he points out that the fear of setting a precedent can sometimes make it harder to do the right thing.

The idea that Quality Assurance is simply a way of finding reasons post hoc for what we know a priori works is naively oversimplistic. My maxim would be: 'If it ain't broke don't QA it'. QA's principal concern is not with justifying what is quality but with improving what is not quality. And the clever use of data is to ask questions not to find solutions. So if I study the performance tables for British schools in a scientific and enquiring way I may find patterns that prompt me to ask what might be the causes for various perceived effects.

Kay himself suggests limits to obliquity. George Soros has noticed that his back aches when he subconsciously perceives that something dodgy is happening. Awareness of this intuition enables him to investigate a situation more carefully. But Kay points out that Soros does not base his investment decisions on intuition but on careful analysis; even the hunch is based on years of laboriously acquired expertise.

Statements such as "Paris grew by muddling through, Brasilia by design; Paris is a great city, Brasilia is not." (p175) confirm that Kay's arguments lack depth. A lot of what people love about Paris are the great boulevards designed by Baron Hausmann. But even if the element of design within Paris was insubstantial, Kay still ignores the time frame. Possibly Paris was not a great city in its first century; evolution takes ages.

February 2012; 179 pages

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