The one-sentence summary

Our goals are best achieved indirectly, so consider taking the oblique route.


  • Paradoxically, many goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly. The most profitable companies are not the most aggressive in chasing profits, the wealthiest people are not the most materialistic, and the happiest people do not pursue happiness. This is the concept of ‘obliquity.’
  • The profit-seeking paradox echoes Collins & Porras in Built To Last: the most successful companies did not put profit first
  • Oblique approaches often take a step back to move forward. Apparently daunting tasks are made easier by doing something, and then learning. This approach is often more fruitful than laboriously detailed planning.
  • This is what Charles Lindblom described as The Science of Muddling Through
  • Direct approaches are often impracticable because the world is too complex, so problem solving needs to be iterative and adaptive


  • The differences between direct and oblique approaches are instructive:

Objectives can be defined, clear and quantified v. loose and multi-dimensional

A clear distinction between goals and actions v. no clear distinction

Interactions with others are limited v. actions and context influence next action

Structure of relationships understood v. imperfect knowledge, learnt on the way

Range of options fixed and known v. only a limited number identified

What happens is what we intend v. outcomes arise on the way

Decisions made with full information v. only limited knowledge is available

Best outcomes through maximisation v. continual, often unsuccessful, adaptation

  • Judgements about feelings, rather than the feeling themselves, explain why we do things that involve hardship, such as parenthood or mountaineering
  • Eudaimonia is a high-level concept – a measure of quality of life, of fulfilling one’s potential, and making sense of seemingly contradictory actions
  • Decision making models are not used to inform decision making, but to justify decisions that have already been made
  • Compare the world to a game of Sudoku: there is only one solution, we know when we have found it, play is not influenced by the responses of others, there is a complete list of possible actions, and complexity has a limit. But human brains work on real problems, not artificial ones, and obliquity works best


  • It is a relatively complicated read, but worth the effort