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What is Obliquity?

By Jennifer Fenn
Updated May 23, 2024
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Obliquity is a philosophical term meaning the act of meeting a goal through indirect, rather than direct means. This philosophical theory has implications in both the business world and in people’s personal lives. 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 losing weight may or may not increase the likelihood of achieving that goal. In this way, obliquity is similar to chaos theory. This term has a different meaning when applied to science.

Business writer and economist John Kay brought the idea of obliquity to the public through his writings and lectures. He 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, like the National Park Service’s “zero tolerance” policy, have failed.

At first, the National Park Service attempted to put out every single fire, no matter how small, that ignited in its forests. The failure of this policy, however, led them to decide in 1972 to extinguish all man-made fires, but allow naturally occurring ones to burn. This, too, failed disastrously, because, according to Kay, these actions were too direct. Finally, the National Park Service decided to work on a case-by-case basis to prevent forest fires, allowing rangers to use their own judgment about how to respond to each fire. Here, Kay claims, is the theory of obliquity in action; this rather roundabout, unplanned strategy has proven the most effective at keeping forest fires under control.

Kay states that business, communities and even the human body are complex systems and therefore goals involving them cannot be pursued successfully with a single-minded focus. Kay also cites the success of Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, as an example of obliquity. Walton is one of the wealthiest people of his time; however, wealth was never his goal. He pursued the goal of having quality stores, and indirectly became wealthy as a result. Kay says this is true of many businesses; those that pursue profit alone rarely achieve it.

How, then, can one ever hope to achieve a goal that is primarily for oneself, like wealth or happiness? Strive for something outside of the self. According to Kay's philosophy, if you want to be happy, you should aim to make others happy, and you will in turn find that happiness for yourself.

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