What a ride on the London Underground teaches about the limits of human ability.
John Kay, the London economist, once took a trip from Paddington to Hyde Park Gardens on the London Underground. He went through several stops and changed trains once, taking some time to do so. Upon his arrival, he was told that he could have walked the distance in five minutes—because Paddington is only two blocks from Hyde Park Gardens. If he had asked when to rely on the Underground map, Kay noted, “the only sensible answer would have been, ‘You’ll learn as you get to know London better.’”
Did Kay go the wrong way because the map was wrong, because the map was inadequate, or because maps are bad?
Kay’s 2010 book, “Obliquity: How Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly,” argues the second. It is a damning indictment of Enlightenment rationality and the social sciences that stemmed from it. As a result, it makes command-and-control politics (like Progressivism) look very silly, but also highlights the shortcomings of “first principles” politics when it comes to accomplishing things.
The thesis of the book is that when a goal is broad or complex (e.g. eliminating poverty), the direct solution (e.g. giving more money to poor people) is not the best one. Complex problems are best solved by taking the oblique approach; the approach that focuses on the small, intermediate decisions—for example, the ones that foster strong workplace cultures, good teams, a passion for the product, etc. and display a recognition of the limits of a leader’s abilities, knowledge, and reach.
This amounts to a critique of the “scientific” approach to virtually everything—particularly the social “sciences”—that was in such vogue in the 20th century. “There is no such science, and there never will be,” he argues. “Our objectives are typically imprecise and multifaceted; they change as we work toward them, as they should. Our decisions depend upon the responses of others and on what we anticipate those responses will be. The world is complex and imperfectly understood, and it always will be.”
As other reviews have noted, Kay argues that gathering all the information for complex planning is impossible, as is thinking there is a single best course of action that can be planned beforehand. “By downplaying genuine practical knowledge and skill in pursuit of a mistaken notion of rationality,” he writes, “we have in practice produced wide irrationality—and many bad decisions.” It is true, he notes, that people who say they know the answer get the headlines, but people who understand the limitations of their own knowledge get more done. The most valuable knowledge is not of “the simple, universal kind,” but complicated, contextual, and interconnected.
At numerous points like this one, Kay brushes past (without confronting directly) the tension between Burke and Strauss—between an approach based on humility and practical knowledge (which he advocates), and an approach based solely on first principles. “The alternative to rebuilding Paris to Le Corbusier’s crazed design,” he argues, “was not to rebuild Paris according to some other grand design but rather to grasp that Paris would develop, as it had for centuries, through a process of constant adaptation. …London grew by muddling through, Brasilia by design; London is a great city; Brasilia is not.”
Thus according to Kay, the problem with his trip on the Underground was not that the first principles (the map) were wrong. They were a perfectly good guide to the London Underground. But they were an inadequate guide to understanding London. Likewise, Notre Dame was certainly built based on architectural first principles, but the actual cathedral took shape over the course of two centuries and many adaptations. Kay’s argument is almost pure Burke in practical form, challenging plans and principles that exist (or are executed) independent of accumulated human wisdom.
“Obliquity” is a challenging book for a leader, especially a policymaker, because it asks him to confront his own limitations, and to consider the limitations of “scientific” knowledge (both in the form of principles and theories and in the form of studies, statistics, and master plans). Most of the book explores the leadership implications of Kay’s central idea—implications which, right or wrong, are difficult to ignore.
Brian Brown loves building the environments, habits, and networks that make people thrive. He is the founder of Humane Pursuits, where he writes a featured column and edits the Give channel. He started his consulting company, Narrator, to help great mission-driven organizations modernize and grow. He lives with his wife Christina and son Edmund in Colorado Springs, where they mix cocktails, hunt for historic architecture, and see how many people they can squeeze into their house for happy hour.