Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Strategic Plans and Quant Models

I love linear thinking. I love to make a list and follow it--whether a large strategic plan for a five-year stretch to guide a university or a list of personal and household errands for a Saturday morning. I am not a good mathematician so placing numbers in a graph or spreadsheet is more of a challenge. But I know that it can be done. I so admired my b-school classmates who could forecast business growth by placing numbers on a grid, lock them in an algorithm, let the computer run several days of iterations, and then predict the company's future. I marveled that so much information could be placed on one line, in one graph, with a simple x-y axis.

Even with all of the sophistication of numbers, modeling, problem solver, graphs, spreadsheets, I sensed that this was not the whole story. Because I have been in the world of spirituality and religion for most of my life, I was aware that there are things in this world that you cannot see--and certainly some things in this world that just simply cannot be graphed--that unpredictability is sure but dangerous for an orderly universe because it cannot be predicted! But I could not articulate these thoughts to this world or even to myself, lest I sound like some early medieval mystic swirling around in a time warp, oblivious to modern assumptions about sun and moon.

Until John Kay and his notion of obliquity. Certainly not a new idea, for process theologians and philosophers have been saying this all along. Minds like Teilhard de Chardin, and contemporary theologians Suckoki and Cobb have been trying to tell us that there is much, more more that what we can see. The question remained: how can an enlightened mind, one shaped by scientific revolutions of the 18-19th centuries, seemingly revert back to a medieval mind, that believes thunder to be an angry god and the earth their good mother ( as well as a geo-centric universe)?

The notion of obliquity says what we all need to know (especially in the world of business and finance right now at the moment)---there is more there than we can see. That does not make us retroactively medieval mystics without a scientific bone in the body, so to speak. To acknowledge obliquity, however, at this moment in our culture, whether religion or politics, is to acknowledge that "direct approaches are often impracticable . . . . and that the consequences of our actions depend on the responses of other people, and these responses spring not just from our actions but from their perceptions of our motives for undertaking these actions. We deal with complex systems whose structure we can understand only imperfectly " (13).

What does this mean---for economics, for politics, for religion, for our nation's leaders? What does the notion of obliquity mean for me and my family?

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