Oblique Strategies – Random Disruption, Rock Stars and Innovation

Question: What has David Bowie and Brian Eno, a 1970’s recording studio, the “Heroes” album, and a pack of cards called ‘Oblique Strategies’ got to do with your Corporate ‘brainstorming and innovative creativity’ team away day session?

Answer: Quite a lot actually.

Sorry to disappoint those hoping for some pointers on ‘creativity enhancing pharmaceuticals’ (although these may be necessary on the team away day). This post is about a technique to disrupt familiar thinking patterns, that was used to great effect in the music industry almost 40 years ago.

I must thank my colleague Alastair for introducing me to Oblique Strategies and this BBC Radio 4 programme by Simon Armitage, which I’d recommend. That prompted me to obtain a set of Oblique Strategies cards (2001 version), picture above.

Oblique Strategies were produced by Brian Eno and Peter Schmitt in 1975 and come in a black box, with gold writing and the top card bearing the words “over one hundred worthwhile dilemmas”.

It’s when you look at rest of the plain white cards that things start to get a bit interesting, all sorts of ‘oblique’ phrases appear such as:

  • Look closely at the most embarrassing details and amplify them
  • Tidy up
  • Be a gardener
  • Try faking it!
  • Withdrawing in disgust is not the same thing as apathy
  • Not building a wall; making a brick
  • Remove ambiguities and convert to specifics7

How Oblique Strategies Work. The idea is that you use the cards to jolt you out of familiar thought patterns, and into a mindset where you explore something different. You literally remove a card from the deck, read what’s written on it and have a think about what it means. There are some rules but you will need to get hold of a set of cards to read for yourself (I’m not about to stray into copyright territory here).

This is essential stuff for musicians (and managers) who are burning up expensive recording studio dollars with the equivalent of ‘writers block’. The cards were apparently used by David Bowie while he was making his Berlin Trilogy of albums (Low, “Heroes”, Lodger) and by the likes of REM and more recently Coldplay. Given the end product of some of these recording sessions, it’s not surprising that in some quarters the Oblique Strategies cards have developed an enigmatic and almost mystical status. It is a bit tempting to think that an oblique phrase on a randomly selected card inspired the latest million selling Coldplay single. The enigmatic status might also have something to do with exceptionally clever marketing and ‘signed limited editions’, given only to close friends.

So what has this got to do with corporate brainstorming sessions? Well, anyone who has been on a lateral thinking or creativity course; or has read anything by Edward de Bono, will be familiar with the concept of disrupting existing thought patterns. A quote from de Bono, “creativity involves breaking out of established patterns in order to look at things in a different way”, nicely sums up what the Oblique Strategies cards and other ‘disruption techniques; are trying to achieve. The approach has become one of the main techniques used nowadays in the business of stimulating creativity, almost as common as bringing together people with diverse viewpoints and experiences.

It is interesting to think that a practice with 40-year-old roots in the music industry (and was a bit esoteric and unusual) has now been transferred into the mainstream of business and corporate life.

Just to shatter the enigma and any illusion of mysticism around Oblique Strategies a bit further, you won’t be surprised to learn that there is an app for Oblique Strategies, as well as a few closely related ‘productivity apps’. I’m actually quite disappointed by that, it feels a bit too corporate and mainstream, and I really enjoyed the feel of the cards.

Final thought. I wonder if there is any mileage in spotting Coldplay lyrics that could be Oblique Strategies phrases? I’ve always been taken by:

  • “Tigers waiting to be tamed” – Clocks
  • “I’d rather be a comma, than a full stop” -Every Teardrop is a Waterfall

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Disrupting existing thought patterns to encourage different thinking and creativity has been around for a long time.
  2. The Oblique Strategies cards have been used widely in the music industry and linked with some very successful artists and recordings.
  3. The approach is being mimicked by the business world, with mainstreaming through the development of apps.

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here: https://whatsthepont.com/churchill-fellowship/

9 Responses

  1. That’s really interesting. It’s funny how sometimes when you have the freedom to do anything, you can’t think what to do with it, but when you introduce the smallest limiters, your brain comes up with all kinds of weird and wonderful ways to incorporate or circumvent them. I recently did a week long short story challenge where you had to roll three picture dice and include each of the three elements in the story and I found that the stories themselves seemed to come a lot more quickly and felt a lot stronger than when I’d tried writing completely off the cuff. Especially as, for example, you might roll a cup, but you’d instantly start thinking of different ways to show it (a teacup, a trophy cup, a cupped hand).

  2. Some time ago I bought Roger von Oech’s “Creative Whack Pack”, a set of 64 cards described as “64 Creativity Strategies to provide and inspire your thinking”. Sadly they have remained unused but I think they attempt to provide the same disruptive provocation that you describe with Oblique Strategies. You encourage me to blow the dust of the pack and have a go!

  3. As I’ve said before John Kay “obliquity” pretty much covers the territory, but in this instance for the cards, (and in response to the Tweet) there’s a rather lovely cognitive science explanation.

    I’m sure you’ve heard of ‘priming’, that you can get someone’s brain predisposed to be good at something, by stimulating the brain with subtle queues. For example, if I said, “Grey, Bingo, Florida” in a rather blunt example, your back brain (the unconscious System 1 in Kahneman terms) has now configured a pattern of connections in your head ready to deal with old people! It’s true, and the Oblique Strategies game does the same thing, kind of in reverse.

    Sat in a recording studio (or a cube-farm) you are queued up with quick connections in your brain, for all the things that your memory associates with being there, the stuff that is most likely to be useful. The cards are simply a method of reframing the usual patterns set up in your brain. The ambiguous phrases increase the cognitive load, so your brain has to look for all kinds of connections and literally opens your mind! There is a balance too much ambiguity and System 1 gets bored quick and tell System 2 (conscios calculating mind) that it’s just rubbish and everything shuts down!

    A long time ago, I was an Architecture Student in a house full of them, and we’d do all sorts of random nonsense to kick up the creative juices. Dress weird, one person gets drunk, play Afgan music, explode cans of beans and other stuff that is best forgotten! It worked we all did some great designs! So you don’t need prompt cards, you need weird people nearby and the ability to get up and do something different or unusual. While System 2 in the front of your gead is busy doing the weirdness, System 1 in the back of your head, will find an oblique connection to the thing you were doing before!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s