If you want to go in one direction, the best route may involve going in the other. Goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly.

Source: https://www.johnkay.com/2004/01/17/obliquity/

the most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented, and the happiest people are not those who make happiness their main aim.

the name for this idea: Obliquity

characteristic of systems that are complex, imperfectly understood, and change their nature as we engage with them.

example: policy of US National Parks Service to handling forest fires vs Boeing, ICI (Zeneca): from a narrow to a broad state mission vs broad to narrow state mission and the impact on success.

Obliquity gives rise to the profit-seeking paradox: the most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented. ICI and Boeing illustrate how a greater focus on shareholder returns was self-defeating in its own narrow terms.

Similarly the richest men are not the most materialistic. Sam Walton, founder and principal shareholder of Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, drove himself around in a pick-up truck.

I have concentrated all along on building the finest retailing company that we possibly could. Period. Creating a huge personal fortune was never particularly a goal of mine

– Sam Walton, founder and principal shareholder of Wal-Mart.

Warren Buffett, the most successful investor in history, still lives in the Omaha bungalow he bought almost 50 years ago and continues to take pleasure in a Nebraskan steak washed down with cherry Coke.

It’s not that I want money. It’s the fun of making money and watching it grow.

– Warren Buffet

The individuals who are most successful at making money are not those who are most interested in making money. The principal route to great wealth is the creation of a successful business, and building a successful business demands exceptional talents and hard work.

the greatest happiness is rarely achieved by those who set out to be happy.

Success through obliquity is a product of natural selection in an uncertain, but competitive, environment.

It is almost certainly true that, on average, profit-oriented companies are more profitable than less profit-oriented companies. It is very likely that on average people who are interested in money are richer than people who are not. But at the same time that the most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented, the richest people are not those most interested in money. Outstanding success is the product of obliquity. See also the book Good to Great, Jim Collins.

This oblique relationship between intention and outcome is the subtle, but frequently misunderstood.

Genes that survive the processes of selection are those well adapted to their environment, and such adaptation was not the product of any conscious design. And this is also true of the forests we travel thousands of miles to see, the great capital cities of history, the traditions of classical architecture, and the development of great businesses.

All of them are the product of evolution in a universe too complex and unpredictable for any of us fully to understand. All of them survive and prosper because they are well adapted to their environment.

Solving equations of motion is a means of understanding what happens, but is not a means of making it happen. Successful companies do maximise long-term shareholder value, or at least create large quantities of it. But that does not imply they were any more capable of formally calculating the results of their activities than Beckham can. Still less can we infer that such calculations were the basis of their achievement. Ex. Boeing not having done a ROI analysis for the successful 747, or ICI for Zeneca

The distinction between intent and outcome is central to obliquity. Wealth, family relationships, employment all contribute to happiness but these activities are not best conducted with happiness as their goal.

Forest management is unexpectedly complex. no one knows the best way to manage a forest, or even what “best” means in this context. Our objective in a complex system is not to find the optimum, because no one can know before or after whether such an optimum has been achieved. We can and should be satisfied with an outcome that is good enough.

What is true of forests is equally true of businesses. The great corporations of the modern world were not built by people whose overriding interest was wealth, profit, or shareholder value.

Obliquity is relevant whenever complex systems evolve in an uncertain environment, and whenever the effect of our actions depends on the ways in which others respond to them.

Obliquity is inevitable when the environment is complex and changing, purposes are multiple and conflicting, and when we cannot tell, even with hindsight, whether they have been fulfilled.

There is a role for carrots and sticks, but to rely on carrots and sticks alone is effective only when we employ donkeys and when goals are simple.

Directness is appropriate. When the environment is stable, objectives are one dimensional and transparent, and it is possible to determine when and whether goals have been achieved. => Cynefin Simple System