The Principle of Obliquity


Two years ago, an interview with a writer by the name of Steve Denning was posted on Anthony Cody’s blog on Education Week. Denning is a proponent of what he terms “radical” management and leadership, which entails reduced hierarchies and increased flexibility and continuous improvement. In that article, he applied some of these ideas to education.

I can be very critical of ideas that I end up becoming closely aligned with, so it’s funny to go back and read my comment on that post, which you can see here. The reality is that I’ve ended up repeating many similar critiques of the education system and proposing similar solutions. Perhaps I got so scrappy because I saw it as an encroachment on my turf.
In any case, the reason why I bring him up is that he posted an article on Forbes, Can Complexity Thinking Fix Capitalism?, that makes interesting points about how the idea of managing complexity applies to business. 
His ideas about managing complexity parallels the discussions on this blog regarding intensive management of complex systems and the need to view schools as complex systems rather than simple machines:

Yet as the world has become more complex, management thinking is still largely anchored in linear thinking where command and control and linear cause-effect thinking are dominant. Managers have often treated organizations as machines (complicated but predictable) rather than organisms (complex, with limited predictability).

Efforts to impose linear thinking on complex situations have often led have the opposite of what was intended. As a result, the principle of obliquity becomes relevant. Where explicit articulation of a goal will result in the complex environment pushing back in the opposite direction, oblique goals will often be more effective, e.g. the goal of delighting customers may make more money than an explicit goal of making money.

I found his principle of “obliquity” fascinating. It’s something that resonates strongly with me, because one of the key things I took away from my experience as a store manager with Trader Joe’s was just how much the “bottom line” of making money was enhanced when you focus on treating employees and customers well. At the end of the day, Trader Joe’s makes a lot of money. But they do so not by focusing on making as much money as they can, but rather by seeking to provide the best service and products possible.

Though I haven’t termed it “obliquity” until now, I’ve advocated a similar focus for public schools. Rather than focus on the “bottom line” of student test scores, we need to focus on the content taught and the learning environment of the school. And by focusing on those things, test scores will naturally be enhanced.

Education reformers have much to learn from the principle of obliquity. The debacle with Michelle Rhee illustrates this point to a T: a zealous reformer comes in and imposes strict linear thinking on an incredibly complex system; the opposite of what was intended occurred. Rhee would have done better to have had her principals set oblique goals, rather than goals that were explicitly tied to their students performance on tests.

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