An interesting book, with a provocative title and paradoxical subtitle – Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly, by John Kay – recently caught my interest. Early in the book, the author quotes Sir James Black, who coined the term – "I call it the principle of obliquity: Goals are often best achieved without intending them."
Wait a minute – doesn't that quote fly in the face of direct solution methods from business school courses, such as "strategic planning" and "operations research," and personal effectiveness training, such as "personal mission statement" and "final and intermediate goals"? Yes it does, and here's why:
- Plans are frequently inferred in hindsight, when – in fact – there was no such plan at the time.
- Case studies have been greatly simplified for class.
- Adaptability is required to reach goals.
Components of Simple Problem Solving
In the book, the author cites the popular game sudoku as an example of a problem successfully solved by traditional direct methods. Sudoku is:
- Clear Cut – The game's objective is "clear and constant."
- Determinate – "The play is not influenced by the responses of others to one's move."
- Closed – "There is a complete list of possible actions...[and all] are in fact available to us."
- Tractable – The number of alternatives is "sufficiently small that all can, at least in principle, be evaluated. Complexity, even if extensive, is bounded." (all excerpted or adapted from page 72)
Solving Complex Business Problems
As you might expect, real-life business problems are much harder than sudoku and thus require indirect – that is, oblique – approaches to solve successfully. Complex problems are:
- Fuzzy – Objectives are often loosely defined.
- Unpredictable – When we take an action, it is impossible to know with certainty the consequences of that action.
- Complex – The number of variables in real-world problems is very large, once you begin to list these.
- Unmanageable – Alternatives cannot be exhaustively generated and tested.
Two examples from my recent experience illustrate these characteristics. First, a particular client wanted the "best" solution to a particular problem – however, evaluating all possible options is the only way to deliver a truly "best" solution. This could have resulted in a very expensive project – and a client being upset with a very large bill. What seemed to be a determinate project actually had unpredictable elements because of the client's possible reactions. Even though the client gave several criteria for any solution, these constraints still did not sufficiently limit the possible variables, making the project complex rather than closed.
A second example comes from a new service line we have been developing to address a very complex problem. Early on, we had to make some decisions and simplifying assumptions to change the problem from unmanageable to tractable. As we worked on the new service line and obtained more and better knowledge of the problem itself, we were able to deviate from our original plans and see some limitations of our early simplifications. Continued progress caused objectives to become less fuzzy and more clear cut.
Applying Indirect Methods for Successful Outcomes
According to the author, successful real-life decision-makers:
- Choose from a limited set of outcomes.
- Recognize the limits of information.
- Adapt continuously.
- Admit that sometimes the answer "just happens."
- Understand that order often emerges intuitively.
- Believe that decision-making is inherently subjective. (all adapted from page 135)
How did we apply these qualities? In the first example, we spent a reasonable amount of time attempting to find the "best" solution, then met with the client to report what we found and recommend how to move forward. For the second, the only way to test our solution was to actually do a few projects, hack our way through the issues as they came up, and evaluate the final results.
My main takeaway from this very intriguing book? Approach complex problems as a series of small experiments and discoveries, recognize that your decisions improve with practice – and embrace the practicality and ubiquity of obliquity.
Todd L. Herman
Client Project Update:
I am pleased to provide you with an update on our client projects. Projects we have completed over this period are...
Business Needs Guide System Selection
Launched and began to manage the effort to identify key business and user needs in an up-to-date ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system to replace several fragmented and out of date systems -including a custom-developed shop floor system -helping this engineer-to-order manufacturer better assess its options by providing objective advice on candidate systems.
Patient Self-Check In
Documented and reviewed the existing workflow for patient-facing technicians in this medical services company, identifying process and technology improvements, including options to allow patients to check themselves in and to enter insurance and payment information.
Assessing Billing Accuracy & Compliance
Devised procedures to assess compliance of this client's medical service billings with government program guidelines, cross-referencing historical services performed and billed to various industry and government databases, while also developing forward-looking processes to ensure ongoing compliance with legislation and regulations.
MRP System Revisions for Offshore Production Changes
Identified and resolved several errors in cost sheet calculations and inventory transfer processing in this client's heavily modified Material Requirements Planning (MRP) system, reviewing infrequently used programs with complex calculations to find small discrepancies, and correcting routines recording inventory movement.
Product Development System Changes for New Components
Analyzed and defined the necessary changes on this product development system required to parallel significant changes on the main business system, enabling this client to quickly incorporate more product component types into products being developed.
Future projects we are planning include...
Improving Time Collection & Project Management
Analyze the current practices, recommend options to improve time collection and project management, and implement the selected options, improving efficiency in time recording and effectiveness of project management -largely using existing systems infrastructure -for a client having over 100 custom-designed projects in process at a time.
Manage the Final Stage of a Major System Upgrade
Identify outstanding items, research the underlying issues, and test the proposed resolution, helping this client efficiently complete a repeatedly-delayed major upgrade to its Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system, and begin to use the many improvements available in the current software.
Analyzing Data to Enhance Revenues
Analyze the records of several municipalities against those of utility companies providing services to identify additional franchise tax, resulting in greater revenue for many cash-strapped municipalities.
Seamless Transition from System Selection to System Implementation
Complete the identification and selection of an up-to-date ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system to replace several fragmented and out of date systems, and then immediately transition to implementing the selected system, helping this client select an appropriate system and move into an aggressive implementation timeline.
Technician Efficiency & Patient Self-Check In
Propose a new workflow for service delivery in this medical services company, and develop a proof of concept prototype application incorporating many best of breed features, streamlining the check-in and insurance verification processes for both the medical technicians and patients.
Enhancing a Product Development System
Design, develop, and test the enhanced user-interface functionality and system-to-system interfaces related to the addition of many new component types for this manufacturer, enabling the quick conversion of over 11,000 product development documents to incorporate the new options.
Designing & Developing a Data Warehouse for Financial Information
Design and develop a data warehouse and OLAP (Online Analytical Processing) cube for a financial system, drawing information from the system and then providing the desired functionality and ease-of-use to the Finance and Accounting groups.