OPINION1 May 2014

Why ‘obliquity’ leads to more impactful market research


Rhiannon Price channels the economist John Kay to argue that the indirect route to insight is often the best.


Source: Frank Ramspott

I believe that the book’s ideas about the relationship between excellence and success are also highly applicable to the way in which we, as market researchers, should be turning data into insight and, moreover, turning that insight into something with as much relevance and reach as possible within the company it is designed to inform.

So, what is “obliquity”? The term was suggested to Kay by Sir James Black, the late pharmacologist and winner of the Nobel Prize for Medicine, who believed that “goals are often best achieved without intending them”.  In other words, being too direct or systematic is often not the optimum approach to things – and, in fact, can sometimes be the root cause of failure. 

Furthermore, it is the pioneers and risk-takers who favour the process of adaptation and discovery who are often the most successful. But Kay reframes this to argue that it is the very fact of taking an indirect approach – something which may seem counterintuitive at first – that helps these pioneers to reach their ultimate goal when a direct approach might have failed.

The best insight demands the bigger picture
The relevance of obliquity to market research becomes most clear when Kay discusses the complex relationships between objectives, goals and actions – something that is at the heart of our profession. He talks about the difference between intermediate objectives and higher-level goals, highlighting that it is often short-sighted of people to direct their actions towards solving intermediate objectives, and by doing so they hinder their ability to answer the real, more fruitful, higher-level goal. 

“Our ability to deliver an optimal solution increases when we have access to the bigger picture… when we use and are given access to the strategic objective of our clients’ problems”

To highlight this, Kay looks at cities such as Brasilia and Canberra – and I would add, closer to home, Milton Keynes – that have been designed to be optimal urban environments (intermediate objective), but that lack the vitality of real communities (higher-level goal) and, as such, “their very functionality is dysfunctional”. Or to draw on another of Kay’s examples, he talks about the superior level of craftsmanship attained when stonemasons worked to a higher-level goal (building a place to worship) versus the intermediate objective (sculpting an angel), “because they understood they were engaged in a great endeavour and that God was glorified not just by the magnificence of the cathedral, but by their own dedication”. 

In essence, our ability to deliver an optimal solution – and our passion for doing so – increases when we have access to the bigger picture. In market research terms, this is relevant to how we use and are given access to the strategic objective of our clients’ problems.

We all know that the difference between providing good and great research is our ability to integrate ourselves in a more consultative role within our clients’ organisations – and obliquity helps us to understand why.  Access to the higher-level goal gives us license to find indirect and creative ways of getting there – and the passion for doing so. 

If a client gives us a prescriptive brief, and the objective is capped at “finding out what x consumer type thinks about y product”, we can only respond to what is an intermediate objective. If, on the other hand, we are furnished with the knowledge that the client’s business model cannot support y’s product development programme unless it takes a certain proportion of market share from its main competitor in a particular territory, then we will likely approach both the research design and analysis in a different manner. This might seem like an indirect approach when considering the intermediate objective, but it has its focus on targeting the higher-level goal.

Embrace obliquity to deliver a more impactful message
Another way in which market research can benefit from the discipline of obliquity is in analysis and reporting. To explain this, I would like to draw on an example Kay gives surrounding the skill of an artist. He points out that the objective of an artist or photographer is to capture his/her subject, but that “we do not judge the quality of a photo or picture by how closely it resembles its subject” – rather, we are interested in the additional quality the work communicates as a result of its creator’s artistic approach to the brief. 

To exemplify this point, Kay refers to Picasso’s ‘The Cock’, which captures a cockerel’s personality far better than any photo or other direct representation of the subject could. In market research terms, this is akin to the difference between data or reportage and sticky insight. 

We can all conduct focus groups or field a survey and report on the findings, but to what extent can we – or rather, do we – find ways to get the deeper message across in provocative and creative ways? How fully do we embrace obliquity in order to help us deliver a much more impactful message than a simple he said/she said narrative?

Rhiannon Price is research director at Northstar Research Partners


10 years ago

Really great piece Rhiannon Thanks Kath

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10 years ago

Great post. The best researchers have unsatiable curiosity.

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10 years ago

Great article Kath - very insightful

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