Obliquity – muddling through in entrepreneurship

Through my travel to the other side of the world last week, I read a couple of books. One of them was Obliquity by John Kay. The subtitle of the book reveals more than the title – why our goals are best achieved indirectly. In this post, I intend to build on my reading of the book, adapt a few ideas, and draw implications for platform-business startups. This is not an exhaustive review of the book – there are a lot of them available online; rather this is a summary of my notes from the book, which I thought was relevant for entrepreneurs.

What do you pursue?

The book builds on an intuitive understanding that relentless pursuit of anything does not take you where you want to go; as much as reaching there obliquely. Happiest people do not pursue happiness, and are happy because they do not actively pursue happiness. They enjoy what they do – their work, their roles, their chores, and are even not sure their activities will lead them to happiness. If you have not yet seen the movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, see it now. It is the experience that matters, not so much the outcome. Successful entrepreneurs startup to solve a world problem, at least something they faced themselves, and not make tons of money/ billions of dollars of valuation. Those that actively play the valuation game – yes I call it a game – do not optimize. Those who are constantly looking for exit options have not been successful. The book is replete with examples of firms whose intent to make money, and how they floundered.

Eudaimonia

Drawing on Aritstotle’s concept of Eudaimonia, Kay classifies three levels of purpose people and firms pursue. The lowest level is those of momentary happiness – like waving at a child smiling through the school bus window; the intermediate level may include a persistent sense of well-being, like a good holiday with family and friends in the Andamans (I have not been there, yet!); and the higher level of pursuit is what is referred to as Eudaimonia, something like the satisfaction of having a patent granted. Something that is fulfilling, achieving something that tells you that you have reached your potential. When I teach strategy introduction sessions, I draw upon vision and mission statements of a variety of (successful) firms to speak about how these statements are actually altruistic and ephemeral, conveying a larger sense of purpose. Consistently, firms that add shareholder value in their vision/ mission statements have faltered, to either rediscover themselves or bite the dust. So, entrepreneurs out there, what is your Eudaimonia? Appreciate that in ancient Greek philosophy (we are approaching the Olympics, right?), “the final end of action is realised in action, and is not a consequence of action. Eudaimonia is a goal set before each agent as soon as he starts to act; it is not chosen and cannot be renounced.” Define why you are in business, and what is your high-level pursuit?

Obliquity in problem solving

Okay, solve this brainteaser for me (cited in page 50-51 of the book). A man sets off walking a mile to his home from his work. As he starts, his dog sets off to meet him on the way, and when it finds him, licks his hand and returns back home. And continues do so (run towards the master, lick his hand and return back home) till the master and the dog reach home together. If the man walked at a speed of three miles per hour, and the dog at twelve miles per hour, how much distance did the dog cover?

You can calculate this distance using the principles of infinite series, but that would be a long-winded calculation. If any of you noticed, the dog was four times as fast as the master, it must have walked four times the distance the master walked in the same time, viz., four miles. This is what Kay refers to as oblique problem solving.

Oblique is simple, direct isn’t. What problems of your customers, partners, stakeholders are you solving? And how – directly, or obliquely? When Tally (www.tallysolutions.com) began selling computerised accounting solutions way back in the 1980s and 90s, their mantra was simple – keep the user experience simple, which translated into replicating the offline processes exactly in the online product. The trial balance looked the same, the ledger entries looked the same, and the end result was that every accountant was already familiar with Tally, when he finished his accounting degree. The “power of simplicity”, which incidentally is their corporate punchline, arose from their intent to not simplify the lives of the accountant, but to exactly replicate. Had they begun simplifying, I am not sure they would have attained this iconic status (and market share) amongst the millions of Indian small and medium businesses (SMBs).

Muddling through

People familiar with academic research on Organization Behavior would have heard of this term “muddling through”, first articulated by Prof. Charles E Lindblom in his seminal paper, “The Science of Muddling Through” (see the paper here). Kay concedes that obliquity is a (better) euphemism for muddling through, and elaborates on how goals, decisions, and actions are different across the direct and muddling through approach (see figure 7 in page 66-67 of the book). A quick summary for the not-so-academically inclined: muddling through represents a state where (a) goals are multi-dimensional and loosely defined; (b) goals evolve over time, in fact, even after the action has begun; (c) the external environment is complex – the structure of relationships is continuously evolving; (d) interactions amongst stakeholders is socially constructed; (e) the external environment is not known, and is uncertain; and (f) the range of events, and therefore the options available in front of the firm/ decision maker is unknown and uncertain. In such a complex and uncertain environment, decision makers engage in “successive limited comparisons of non-comprehensive actions”.

Entrepreneurs do engage in a variety of muddling through. We talked about pivoting and bricolage in an earlier post in this blog (Pelf). As the environment you encounter is uncertain and/ or complex, you are entitled to muddle through! However, do not lose sight of the higher level pursuit, your Eudaimonia. In the absence of the larger sense of purpose, muddling through will remain just that, and not lead you to your ultimate pursuit.

Ex post justification of random outcomes

Kay discusses in detail about how England footballer, David Beckham could “bend” the football, performing multi-variable physics calculations in matter of seconds as he takes a free kick (read a wonderful reporting about it in The Telegraph here). I am not convinced (like Kay) that David indeed did all those calculations, or did Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, the early exponents of reverse swing in cricket seam bowling, or even exponents of the ‘legal’ doosra or carom-ball deliveries in spin bowling. They had some idea, tried something, experimented, experienced a difference, persisted, perfected and professed (subsequently). Ex post justifications, all of them. A lot of entrepreneurial successes and failures are also subject to the same phenomenon. Now that a famous startup firm has sold out, all the arm-chair analysts will bring out their own analyses on why they saw this was coming. Search on the Internet about the merger of Uber China with Didi Chuxing – you will find a lot of ex post justifications on why this was waiting to happen. There are relatively very few insights/ posts of what that means for other competitors, and how Lyft, Ola, or Grab would feel the impact; or even why Didi Chuxing decided to buy out a competitor so small in size and give its shareholders a share of their own pie. So, when you encounter ex post justifications, just concede to randomness, reflect to learn (you use the rear view mirror of the car to drive forward, right?), and continue forward.

So, in summary, entrepreneurs of today, define what is it that you pursue, what are your higher level goals, and what is your Eudaimonia. Appreciate that obliquity in decision making is here to stay and be prepared to muddle through the environment and indulge in some arm chair ex post justifications of performance.

Shameless self-promotion

By the way, if you are in Bangalore and are available on Saturday, the 6th August 2016 forenoon (0950am onwards), you are invited to attend a panel discussion I am moderating on “Network Mobilization in Platform Business Firms” as part of the IIMB’s entrepreneurial summit, Eximius 2016. For more details, please visit http://eximius-iimb.com/4startupsnsrcel/. Free, mandatory registration at the website.

 

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