“Goals are Often Best Achieved Without Intending Them” – John Kay’s Obliquity, and the Big Question of “Why?”

obliquity-paperback-196x300-1(Sir James) Black probably created more shareholder value than any other man in postwar British business, but his motivation was to pursue chemistry, not profit. Black: “I call it the principle of obliquity: Goals are often best achieved without intending them.”
(from Obliquity: Why Our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly by John Kay).


I hear more than my share of reminders that business is in the business of making money. And, of course, that is right. Sort of… But, if that is the “real” and only why an endeavor is undertaken, I’m not sure it’s all that wise, or healthy.

This modern era is remarkable; I follow Tom Peters on Twitter, and he tweeted a good word on this John Kay book.   (I obviously had missed this book when it came out…).. He mentioned that Nicholas Nassim Taleb was high on the book (and, Mr. Taleb is not high on very much). So, within 15 seconds, I had the sample pages, and started reading.

I like the book.  I really like the book!

And, it is the perfect reminder for a thoughtful Sunday morning.

What are your goals. Why do you pursue your goals? These are the underlying questions of the book.

I was reminded of a couple of lines from Drive by Daniel Pink:

If someone’s baseline rewards aren’t adequate, or equitable, her focus will be on the unfairness of her situation and the anxiety of her circumstance. You’ll get neither the predictability of extrinsic motivation nor the weirdness of intrinsic motivation. You’ll get very little motivation at all. But once we’re past that threshold, carrots and sticks can achieve precisely the opposite of their intended aims.

So, make sure there is enough money, but money alone; “profit goals” alone…  not the answer!

Here’s what I think so far. This book is a tutorial on the mistake of aiming for profit alone. In fact, it is a warning – be careful what you aim for. And, the indirect approach; the one where the outcome you attain was unexpected, but actually fulfilling… this is the better path of life.

Kind of sets “goal setting” and “strategic planning” on it head, doesn’t it?

Something to think about on a Sunday morning.

(And, by the way, Obliquity is a book that I don’t quite want to put down until I finish it…).



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