The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

Achieving goals indirectly

As this issue goes to press, the world is still reeling from the effects of a volcano in Iceland. Not content with adding to global financial chaos and threatening the survival of West Ham FC, Iceland also grounded planes across Europe.

Or perhaps it just serves as a timely reminder that, no matter how much we humans feel in control of situations — nature will always have the upper hand. So perhaps it's a good time for John Kay to launch his book Obliquity: Why Our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly (profilebooks.com)

His view is that “obliquity describes the process of achieving complex objectives obliquely”, using an iterative and adaptive approach that always recognises that our knowledge of the complex environment in which we operate is necessarily piecemeal and imperfect. This is the world in which the brands and products and services we research live, where, as he says, “in solving problems we learn that we may have to change the objectives themselves”.

The belief that there is a science of decision-making, based on an assumed knowledge of the world, has often according to Kay, led to failure. Modernist housing being bull-dozed, the attempt to reconstruct the Middle East after a US model, the banking crisis, the distortion of UK public services by the imposition of targets are all vividly argued examples.

Kay makes the point that economic thinking is dominated by a theory of rational choice, whose influence has spread to politics, psychology and sociology. “By downplaying genuine practical knowledge and skill in pursuit of a mistaken notion of rationality we have in practice produced widespread irrationality — and many bad decisions.”

But a process of reassessing goals and resulting actions, improvising and constant adaptation, and retreating when attempted solutions are less promising than initially thought is, he states, better in all ways — more fluid, more opportunistic, and often more serendipitous.

He describes how business goals of solely maximising shareholder value led to the demise of previously high achieving companies like ICI, and the implosion of Lehman Brothers. Higher level objectives, as well as intermediate goals and basic actions have to be balanced all the time by corporations and governments. When the enterprise is complex and long-term, like the building of a cathedral, many people contribute to the outcome but none will hold a full understanding of how it was achieved over time.

Interpreting the problem differently and holding contradictory ideas simultaneously are all applauded by Kay — good examples of the former being Google, Apple's iPhone and the latter John Maynard Keynes.

Kay spends much time debunking the notion that decision makers should choose one path and follow it rigorously in the belief that processes and systems can take account of all possible eventualities. In his view we can only consider a few possibilities and he argues for eclectism and seeing consistency in decision making as not necessarily a virtue in this complicated world of ours. This is a stimulating, humane and very well argued read.

So, as plumes of smoke continue to rise over the volcano in Eyjafjallajökull and we await a possible change of government, why not take time out to read this book? Qualitative researchers will like it, as it supports many of the practices we have been doing for years, and argues for pragmatism, humility, creativity and wisdom in decision making. May David Sullivan at West Ham — not to mention Messrs Brown, Cameron and Clegg — read it, too.

 

Tessa Stuart
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2010