by Warren Church
Toute nation a le gouvernement qu'elle mérite.
– Joseph de Maistre
An organization, like a nation, is a group of people; a collective multitude of decisions, actions, behaviors and interactions. The observed and unobserved norms that form as a result constitute the organization’s culture. In this way, culture represents the shadow of the organization; whatever the organization does is reflected in its shadow - and that can only be changed obliquely.
Obliquity is the idea that goals are often best achieved when pursued indirectly. The economist John Kay helpfully points out that ‘the pursuit of happiness is a strange phrase in the US constitution because happiness is not best achieved when pursued. A satisfying life depends above all on building good personal relationships with other people – but we entirely miss the point if we seek to develop these relationships with our personal happiness as a primary goal.’
Obliquity is a characteristic of systems that are complex, imperfectly understood, and change their nature as we engage with them - like any organization made up of thousands of people.
In fact, if you look closely you’ll see that the firms which adapt the best to change are not those who spend millions on change management consultants or even make organizational change their primary aim; and that the most engaged companies are not the ones championing engagement campaigns. W.L. Gore, IKEA and Amazon come easily to mind.