Chance Favors the Prepared Mind – and the Oblique Approach

(With apologies to Louis Pasteur)

Louis Pasteur, courtesy of Wikipedia.

Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly by John Kay

I have spent most of my professional career thinking and planning for the future.  Certainly not as a futurist but as a ‘Budget-Guy’ or strategic planner.  Unlike most accountants, I preferred the numbers of tomorrow to those of yesterday.

Given that I have written my fair share of plans, I was interested in John Kay’s book which has a premise that the path to tomorrow is often not straight and definitely may not be quantifiable.  Kay proposes that a focus on passion and excellence leads to better profits than maximizing shareholder value.  For example, Boeing was more successful when aeronautic-philes ran the board room versus when it was filled with suits, MBAs and accountants.

Given that I a) own a suit; b) am an accountant and c) have a MBA; should Kay’s premise worry me?  Are budget guys of the future doomed to be replaced by those with passion?  I think not for two good reasons, both contradictory, like the premise of this book.

The first is that passion is a well-known and recognized attribute of successful companies.  Passion causes people to work long hours for NASA so as to put a man on the moon.  Or passion drives working for a charity or a non-profit organization.  Business gurus have cleared whole forests coming up with other names for passion such as an organization’s Vision or the need to stick to one’s knitting.

The second good reason is in the form of the question: ‘how do we know that Boeing was more profitable when it was run by passionate versus suited-accounting-MBA types?’.  Presumably because in both cases, suited-accounting-MBA types were still there paying the bills, developing budgets and keeping government regulators at bay.

In other words, we should be willing to take the long road home and follow our passions.  Great discoveries have been found through chance when the right person was looking in the right direction (hey, it got Louis Pasteur a nice Nobel Prize).  So, Obliquity is something to cultivate and encourage… but… in the end only execution matters.  The aeronautic-phile executives at Boeing developed the 747 through both vision and a lot of hard work (including the suited-accounting-MBA variety).

And this brings us back to Kay’s book and whether or not you should bother to read it?  My thoughts are:

  • a) Yes, because he is right.  Chance favors the prepared mind and the organization needs to expect a bit of serendipity to accomplish its goals.
  • b) No, Kay has cherry picked his examples.  For every Boeing that has re-located its passion there are dozens of Packard Motor Works who had passionate people but lacked the capital or size to compete.
  • c) Yes, because Kay is an engaging writer.  Even if the book suffers from a lack of research, it is still a great read.

I was going to suggest that you rush out and buy the book but decide to instead recommend obliquity finding it in a book shop near you while not looking for it.