Why Culture Change Requires an Indirect Approach

Why Culture Change Requires an Indirect Approach

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 what 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 – team effectiveness, inclusion, wellness, leadership, among others – the inevitable salad of human emotions and personal agendas create complicated as well as complex challenges.  

Understanding Obliquity

Image: Johannes Vermeer, The Girl With the Pearl Earring, 1665. [Public Domain] via WikiArt.org

In a fascinating essay (later expanded into a book by the same name), British economist John Kay suggests an indirect approach to complex aspirations with a particular focus on 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.

In short, 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 experience. 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 hard 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?

We use narrative literature at Books@Work to create this oblique space, to inspire us and to give us confidence to explore the more challenging aspects of the human condition.  The characters and their exploits invite us to share our own experiences, challenge our assumptions, see each other and ourselves in a new light. We can discuss the “undiscussables” 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 thoughtful 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

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

A Leadership Team

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 sort of 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 overvalued both the leader’s weakness and 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.

A Remote Team

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 and how they course-correct when they’ve misjudged someone. As the professor facilitating the discussion described, “We hung out in the characters’ worlds, and also used their worlds to ask questions about our own.”

What about Business Books?

Many leaders ask us why we use literature in Books@Work. Why not business books or training sessions that teach people a specific set of tools?  These learning approaches add tremendous value to address specific and measurable problems with a single clear solution.

But when more than one solution exists, direct approaches foreclose discovering 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 surfaces the critical issues that stand in the way of inclusive teams and organizations.  

Image: Perle FineUntitled, 1940 via Wikiart.org 

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Ann Kowal Smith

Ann Kowal Smith


Ann Kowal Smith is the Founder and Executive Director of Books@Work.