Interesting Article: Obliquity, the Indirect Path to Success


I've been reading the book Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly  and, while it's really interesting, I tend to agree with some of the reviews that said there was a lot of repetition of the book's core concept – that the best way to achieve something is to take the indirect path.

The main point of the book is pretty well covered in this article on obliquity by the book's author, John Kay.

Kay argues (and backs with examples and empirical proof) that companies that focus on doing something (making products or providing service) really well end up being very profitable. Companies that have a primary goal of being very profitable tend to underperform. Boeing is held up as an example as a company whose mission was about creating and building great airplanes, not maximizing short-term revenues. Additionally, people who have a primary focus on being happy tend to be less happy than others…

Strange as it may seem, overcoming geographic obstacles, winning decisive battles or meeting global business targets are the type of goals often best achieved when pursued indirectly. This is the idea of Obliquity. Oblique approaches are most effective in difficult terrain, or where outcomes depend on interactions with other people.

So instead of focusing primarily on, say, patient satisfaction scores, maybe a hospital would be better focusing on the service… and the score will follow. Passion, rather than an obsessive focus on the numbers, tends to lead to the best results.

George Merck, the founder of the namesake company, is quoted in the article:

“We try never to forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for the profits. The profits follow, and if we have remembered that, they have never failed to appear. The better we have remembered it, the larger they have been”

The Johnson & Johnson company credo has similar language about focusing on the patients and healthcare providers and

“When we operate according to these principles, the stockholders should realize a fair return.”

There's some interesting parallels to our approach in Lean. Focusing less on cost reduction tends to lead to impressive cost reductions… but the cost reduction is the end result of passion, mission, and high quality. Lean is an oblique approach, don't you think?

I guess I'd ask — if you're even aware that you're taking the oblique, indirect approach, are you being too self aware for it to still be an indirect approach?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Nice review Mark.

    I listened to the book this summer and did enjoy it. One of the things that I took away from it, not sure it was directly implied ;) was how often we are so blinded by the direct approach and most often when we are near or part of the point of reference/concern. That other set of eyes is so important. And especially when it can come from the customer’s side of the perspective.

    For example, one of the things we have always been instructed to do is to get a vendor involved. I have been trying a rather oblique approach lately by trying to get a customer’s customer involved. The jury is still out but if we can target the supply chain in one direction for knowledge, why can’t we the other!

  2. Mark,

    good post, thanks for making me think – again :-)
    What I was trying to figure out was how the idea of taking an indirect approach (instead of pushing against walls, maybe) fits with TOC:
    I always try to integrate Lean and Theory of Constraints by Goldratt, and G. emphasizes how important it is for a business to ask “What are we here for?” – with the only valid answer “To make some money.” – which would be a pretty DIRECT approach.

    But I guess the true ‘lean’ answer would be that out of great processes follow great products, leading to money flowing in,


    • Martin, now you’re making me think. Thinking about TOC… if the primary goal is to make money, increasing throughout or decreasing operating expenses aren’t the most oblique paths to get there.

      But I think the point of the article is that companies with passion about products, services, and customers using TOC will outperform those who use it only to turn money into more money.

      • Mark,

        actually this question of ‘passion’ was in the news only recently, as part of the coverage of Steve Jobs’ resigning as Apple CEO:

        The question was, if GM or HP would perform better, had their CEOs shown the same *passion* w.r.t. products as Steve Jobs did…


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