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Obliquity - An Indirect Route to Success

Published: Jan 12 , 2021
Author: Keith Stacey

Professor John Kay an economist, has written a fascinating book on the subject of obliquity (taking the indirect route). He first became fascinated by the concept when it was used by Sir James Black, a famous chemist who stated that goals are often best achieved without intending them.

 

Companies that have focused on increasing shareholders have often been less successful than companies with a more visionary objective such as, “the innovative and responsible application of chemistry and related science” (ICI). In pursuit of these visionary goals, profits flow.

 

George Merck the founder of the company bearing his name stated:

 

“We try to never forget that medicine is for the people. It is not for profits. The profits flow if we have remembered that; they have never failed to appear. The better we have remembered it, the larger they have been.”

 

This indirect approach in military campaigns has often led to stunning victories.  Examples include; general Wolfe’s attack on the French by scaling the cliffs at Quebec and the fall of Singapore after the Japanese invaded down through the Malay peninsular (thus avoiding the British guns facing out to sea on Sentosa Island) and the German advance through Belgium in WW2 making the French Maginot line of fortifications irrelevant.

 

As negotiators, we often see solutions in only one focus - ours. As a result, we do not engage the counterparty’s creative skills to develop innovative solutions which benefit both. An example is a supplier part way through a contract who finds that because of an increase in non-planned maintenance, that they are not going to gain any profit from a contract.

 

The solution is simple; increase the annual charge to the customer or charge for all non-planned maintenance. Both solutions would be resisted by the customer. By exchanging information with the customer, it would be apparent that many service calls are for relatively trivial swap outs; that the customer did not require 100% availability of equipment, 100% of the time.

 

By working together, the two parties can develop and distribute the maintenance model, thereby reducing service calls without any impact of availability. The supplier’s profits are restored, and the customer does not face price increases of a reduction in availability.

 

Better still, the two parties have cooperatively generated some new intellectual property-the shared maintenance model which can be used with other customers and suppliers. By working around the problem, the parties have generated the best solution for both of them.

 

At Scotwork we faced a situation where a customer was reluctant to agree to our terms- a course fee for 12 participants $45000 plus venue costs, tutor travel and accommodation. Our initial thought was that the client was worried about the size of the fee.

 

Closer questioning revealed that it was not the size, but the fact that it could not be determined until after the course when the venue and travel costs become known.

 

The client wanted certainty about the bill so they could invoice each participant prior to the course. The solution was obvious once we identified the issue. We estimated the other costs and provided a single “no more to pay” invoice to which the client readily agreed. Surprise, surprise, other clients developed a preference for the ‘no more to pay course fee’ and we had a new option in place for them.

 

The sharing of information, the defining of the common interest and agreeing on the principles which will guide the negotiation should enhance the prospect of mutual gain. The parties in pursuit of their own interest will find that the other party’s interest is not a barrier to agreement but the means to getting agreement.

 


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About the author:

Keith Stacey
Keith is a Principal Consultant with Scotwork and has over 30 years experience as a business consultant, educator and trainer. He is a regular consultant to senior executives in professional practice and his principal interests in management are strategic planning, project management, client-relationship management and conflict resolution.

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Obliquity - An Indirect Route to Success

Professor John Kay an economist, has written a fascinating book on the subject of obliquity (taking the indirect route). As negotiators, we often see solutions in only one focus - ours. As a result, we do not engage the counterparty’s creative skills to develop innovative solutions which benefit both. An example is a supplier part way through a contract who finds that because of an increase in non-planned maintenance, that they are not going to gain any profit from a contract...

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