July 6, 2021

Complex Challenges Need Indirect Approaches

We live in a results-oriented world. And many believe that the best way to get results is to be direct. After all, when we know exactly what we want to accomplish and the steps to take to get there, anything other than a direct approach is a waste of time.  

But what if the problem is thorny and the solutions are less clear?

When we seek to make change that involves people of different backgrounds and perspectives, the direct path becomes hard, if not impossible, to identify. In issues related to organizational culture – inclusion, team collaboration, wellness and leadership – the inevitable salad of human emotions and personal agendas create complicated and complex challenges.  

In a fascinating essay (later expanded into a book by the same name), British economist John Kay suggests that an indirect approach may better address complex aspirations in business. In describing Obliquity, he explains:

"Oblique approaches are most effective in difficult terrain, or where outcomes depend on interactions with other people. Obliquity is the idea that goals are often best achieved when pursued indirectly."

Specifically, Kay explains, an oblique approach fits best when a scenario is uncertain, and where successful outcomes depend as much on how people interpret a leader’s motives as his/her actions.

Another way to think about this idea: when we have no idea how a complex system will respond, how can we know which levers to pull?

Consider inclusion. For some, bias and prejudice have been lifelong experiences. Others are only newly understanding the injustices of society and the workplace. The difficult conversations required to address these inequities – in an organization or a team – are harder when we meet everyone in a different place. How do we create a safe space for colleagues to share their views and their experiences and to ask honest but sometimes painful questions without retribution?

Reflection Point uses narrative literature to create this oblique space, to inspire and give confidence to explore the more challenging aspects of the human condition.  The characters and their exploits invite colleagues to share their own experiences, challenge their assumptions, see each other and themselves in a new light.

These conversations make discussing the “undiscussables” possible, without breaching real or perceived institutional barriers.  

But narrative literature also provides a rare moment to step back, to use a story as a vehicle for reflective thought or mindful observation. Mindfulness asks us to detach from our racing minds to observe the way we react to our own thoughts. Similarly, discussing literature invites us to explore our relationships (individual and collective) to thorny topics such as race, gender and social inequality or intangible business challenges like leadership, team dynamics, and culture.

A few examples help bring the oblique power of literature to light:

For a team of leaders challenging themselves to understand their relationships with their own teams, Jorge Luis Borges’ story “The Dead Man” offered a powerful mirror. A literary “spaghetti western,” Borges’ story follows a tough guy who joins a gang and secretly aims to overthrow its leader. In a mere four pages, the “hero” comes to realize that he underestimated the leader and overestimated his own strength. Inspired by the story, the team’s discussions gave way to honest evaluations of the way they treat and accept newcomers, and the extent to which they give their colleagues the benefit of the doubt.

For another group seeking to forge deeper connections across several remote locations, George Saunders’ “Puppy” triggered heartfelt discussions of perception and judgement. This powerful story of class distinctions invited the group to share personal and professional instances when they presumed something about someone else. They discussed the challenge of course-correcting when they’ve misjudged someone. Said one participant, “We hung out in the characters’ worlds, and also used their worlds to ask questions about our own.”

Many leaders ask us why we use literature in Reflection Point. Why not business books? Might training sessions that teach people a specific set of tools be faster and more direct?  Business books and training add tremendous value to address specific and measurable problems with a single clear solution.

But when more than one solution exists, direct approaches mask the best option. And in the messy world of human emotions, a direct approach can become explosive, fast. An oblique or indirect approach invites multiple stakeholders to expand the world of possibilities and safely surface the critical issues that stand in the way of inclusive teams and organizations.

Image Credit:
Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation 26, 1912, via wikiart.org
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