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The Indirect Approach

I’m relearning how to breathe. Which is odd, since the fact that I’m typing this suggests I already know how to do that. And since I’ve also just returned to school to do a masters degree it would be fair to expect that I’d be into more advanced material, generally speaking. But here I am. Breathing.

As the Fall semester started I coincidentally also began working with a new trainer. I mostly exercise for my mental health, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not competitive with myself about it. I’ve been working towards a major deadlift goal for almost a year, and unfortunately I haven’t made a lot of progress. I’ve plateaued, as they say. 

Newbie lifters tend to rapidly and steadily increase how much they can lift for months, and sometimes even a year or two. But then those gains start to slow. This can be psychologically difficult, often eroding motivation. It can also be tricky to figure out how to manipulate the right combination of variables to continue to progress. And there are a lot of variables: sleep, recovery, stress, diet, mobility, mindset, technique, training regimen and so on. 

Importantly, at a certain point just pushing yourself harder physically can actually backfire, further stalling your progress. This is incredibly counterintuitive, especially surrounded by ‘Just Do It’ and “No Pain, No Gain” inspo.

I’ve written before about the very rich source of learning that weightlifting has been for me personally and professionally. There are so many parallels I’ve noticed with the complexities of learning and growth in organizations. Training with someone new has offered a fresh wave of insights.

In particular, it’s been an emphatic reminder of the role that oblique strategies can play in tackling complex challenges. 

“You’re a shallow breather” my trainer told me during one of our first sessions. Um, okay. Is that code? No? 

He gave me three warm up exercises to do before every workout that just involved me breathing in various postures. I felt silly. Beast mode this was not. 

He told me that I should practice deep breathing a few times a day. That’s it? Really?

This went on for weeks. And then this past Wednesday we went heavy on deadlifts, and lo and behold my breathing felt different. Deeper. And when I braced my core to maintain good form it felt like I had a corset on. And not some flimsy lace corset. A badass corset made of determination! (Okay okay, I’m being a bit dramatic).

I still have a ways to go before I reach my goal, but the plateau has finally been breached. And all because of some simple breathing exercises.


I first read about obliquity in John Kays’ book, aptly title: “Obliquity. Why Our Goals are Best Achieved Indirectly”. Kay says:

“Obliquity describes the process of achieving complex objectives indirectly. In general, oblique approaches recognize that complex objectives tend to be imprecisely defined and contain many elements that are not necessarily or obviously compatible with one another, and that we learn about the nature of the objectives and the means of achieving them during a process of experiment and discovery. Oblique approaches often step backward to move forward.

At the time, these words stuck with me because they were the antithesis of everything I thought was true. Then (and very often now), my approach to getting things done was to tackle them head on, and if I met resistance to just. push. harder.

This approach often cost me heavily: energy, psychological resources, and even relationships. Turns out, just pushing harder can often mean pushing past other people. And on top of that, it frequently failed. Plowing through only works if you’re plowing in the right direction, and the chance of that drops if your focus is fully on moving forward rather than noticing your surroundings. Kay argues that in cases in which our goals are complex rather than straightforward we are often better off to “muddle through” than charge ahead. 

The environment—social, commercial, natural—in which we operate changes over time and as we interact with it. Our knowledge of that complex environment is necessarily piecemeal and imperfect. And so objectives are generally best accomplished obliquely rather than directly”

Like making small bets on low-risk experiments before rolling out a company-wide program to see what happens and adjust accordingly, or doing multiple ‘draft’ runs of a new workshop to collaboratively iterate its design with others, the principle can be applied in small ways in our organizations, or perhaps in big ones. Kay refers to examples of organizations that explicitly seek objectives other than profit, and find themselves more profitable as a byproduct. 

I’m not sure about that, but I’m going to try to use this week’s lifting breakthrough as a reminder to look for other situations when I should stop pushing for a second, and try muddling instead. Instead of treating resistance or a lack of progress as a signal to push harder, I’m going to ask whether it’s an invitation to notice this friction and see what it can tell me about the underlying forces at work, and whether they merit different strategies. And I’m going to keep breathing.  

3 quotes, 2 links, 1 gif

Trying something a little different down here at the bottom of posts. Since I’m doing a lot of reading for school (like, so so much) I’m going to share some of my favorite quotes of the week, as well as share a few links from elsewhere on the web.

“Just as newspapers do not, typically, engage the ordinary experiences of people’s daily lives, organizational studies has also tended largely to ignore the humdrum, everyday experiences of people working in organizations. The most central discussions and debates in organizational studies textbooks are often remarkably remote from these commonplaces, as if organizations are not inhabited and embodied by individuals who go to work. There is, as Fineman, Sims and Gabriel (2005: 1x) note, ‘a gulf between the lived experience of organizing and being organized by others, with its uncertainty and confusion, and the tidy, rather sanitized texts on organizational behaviour’.”

Ybema, S., Yanow, D., Wels, H., Kamsteeg, F. (Eds). (2009). Organizational Ethnography: Studying the Complexities of Everyday Life. Los Angeles: Sage

“The answer to the “how” of change must be made up as one goes” 

van Eijnatten, F.,M. (2004). Chaordic systems thinking: Some suggestions for a complexity framework to inform a learning organization. The Learning Organization

“…what we began to glimpse is that this wasn’t just about one predator — it was about an entire system. It was about the nature of complicity and why people go along with behavior like this and don’t challenge it. It was about how it gets covered up.” 

Jodi Kantor, ‘New York Times’ Reporters Explain How They United Women, Helping Trigger #MeToo – NPR

Read it:

How to Support an Employee With Social Anxiety – Ellen Hendrikson, HBR

This is what rape culture looks like: An excerpt from Robyn Doolittle’s new book, Had it Coming – Robyn Doolittle, The Globe and Mail

Gif My Life:

Currently writing three papers (but only feeling a tiny bit sorry for myself because I love it)

Photo by Jaromír Kavan on Unsplash

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