Solving Complex Problems Obliquely


Following a link on Twitter from Tim Harford, I found this great TED talk from economist John Kay on the principle of obliquity.

We’ve explored the principle of obliquity here before—in relation to goal-setting in business (thanks to Steve Denning)—and we related the cheating that occurred during Michelle Rhee’s reign to her pressure on goals based explicitly on test scores, as opposed to oblique goals.

John Kay enumerates three issues with decision-making on complex problems:

  1. Defining what our objectives are is complicated
  2. The world is uncertain. We can’t predict the future.
  3. The world is very complicated and the simplifications we make to deal with it are often very misleading. We don’t know what the right model will be for each particular problem.

In elucidating the 3rd problem, Kay quotes Benjamin Franklin in what he terms Franklin’s Gambit: “So convenient a thing is it to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one had in mind to do.”

In other words, in our decision-making processes on complex problems, we often select the evidence that best supports the decision we think best to make. One can see this sort of thinking in abundance on both sides of the ed reform divide.

Given these issues, then, Kay advises us to apply obliquity to our decisions. He suggests that we model the fox, rather than the hedgehog, in that “The fox knows many little things. The hedgehog knows one big thing.” Given the size and complexity of the unknown, therefore, we are best off focusing more obliquely on the small things immediately before us that we better understand. In this way, we are more likely to accomplish the grander goals and vision we really hope to accomplish over the long haul.

This also reminds me of Nassim Taleb’s advice in Antifragile* to give up any attempt to make predictions of the future, as there is no way to predict what he called “black swans.” He suggests that instead of trying to quixotically predict events impossible to predict, we instead should assume the worst and prepare for it. Assume volatility, in other words, and seek to create systems that will adapt to such volatility, rather than try to prevent it. Similar to Kay, he also suggests that we adopt a more fox-like mentality, and use heuristics that have been proven and honed by time and practice, rather than blithely seeking the next technological fix or algorithm.

Food for thought.

Some thoughts on applying these insights to the context of a school:
  • Clarify a shared vision and purpose for the school, and allow each departmental/grade-level team to create their vision and purpose based off of that.
  • Rather than establishing goals, establish short-term project or task deadlines. If you must set goals, instead of setting annual goals, set short-term goals that align with the school’s vision.
  • Meet as grade-level and departmental teams on a frequent basis and focus on practical, immediate targets and student work (continuous refinement and  improvement).
  • Expect and grow to love The Chaos Monkey (love this term. Read the article linked to on it.)
I would love to know your thoughts on applying the principle of obliquity in a school. I think if we focus on the tangible work and students before us, we can more efficiently get to the grand ideal of a strong school culture and academic achievement.

*I found Antifragile fascinating and highly provocative and useful, while also disagreeing with Taleb’s ideas on education, so I will be writing more in depth on this book in the future. Probably the far distant future, at this point, since the school year is about to begin. . . That’s an oblique goal, obviously.

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