oblique strategies

your mistake was a hidden intention

I'm not sure who to credit here (although Freud would seem like a good starting point for the headline, even though it's actually Peter Norton's rather Revised Standard translation of Brian Eno's King Jamesian 'Honour thy error as a hidden intention').

You probably know of Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt's Oblique Strategies
. For reasons I don't quite understand, there also a list of them on the
BBC website. Somehow or other based on these, is a list of ten strategies for start-ups, which I found on Sean Murphy's blog. They are strategies to help get a team 'unstuck'. The first line is the oblique strategy, with some additional commentary of Sean's and mine:

A line has two sides

Sean's suggestion is that the team construct a diagram to represent the forces holding the system at its current equilibrium point (keeping the situation stuck). Draw a vertical line down the middle of a piece of paper and then draw arrows representing the forces working for and against the change you want to make. Each arrow is assigned a 'strength' by its length. Initially most teams focus on strengthening the forces working for them, but it's often as fruitful to consider how to diminish the forces working against them.

Abandon desire

Fear and desire, it seems to me, are second cousins: both relate directly to what might be going to happen in the future. Sean says that it's as important to let go of fear as greed. This could be fear of failure, fear of the bigness of the becoming-whale-of-an-idea, fear of humiliation or being 'seen'. Associating fear and desire is revealing in other ways: the eighth of W. Edwards Deming's 14 points for management was the need to 'drive out fear'.

Abandon normal instructions

According to Sean, most successful breakthrough teams don't 'break all of the rules,' just the ones that are truly getting in their way, and they understand the risks and likely consequences. This is an important balance to get right. As Charles Leadbeater observes in Living on Thin Air, 'we are scientific and technological revolutionaries, but political and institutional conservatives.' I think 'normal instructions' relate here principally to the mechanics, norms and habits of working.

Accept advice

I talk a lot about this elsewhere in alexander bain and the fax machine (not online yet).

Back up a few steps. What else could you have done?

Here the suggestion is to keep decision records. Russell Ackoff suggests that a decision record incorporate the following items (and that it's more important to document when you decide not to do something so that you lay the groundwork for tracking both errors of commission and errors of omission).

  • A brief statement that justifies decisions, including likely effects and outcomes.
  • The assumptions that the decision was based on.
  • The information, knowledge, and understanding that went into the decision.
  • Who made the decision, how it was made, and when.
If you've got time to spare, go and listen to Ackoff talking on these four clips. I think he's one of the most gifted thinkers and speakers on organisations that I've ever come across.

Be dirty

'Go Ugly Early' - a product marketing aphorism that I talk more about in Creativity and Innovation (also not online yet).

[I've since discovered that everyone except me knows it's based on a principle adopted by lonely hearts: save yourself the anguish of pursuing the beautiful but attainable all evening and make a play for the plain one right from the start. The idea is nicely developed by Danny Schmidt:

Then a father, full of wisdom
Said I learned when I was young
That a pretty face ain’t worth the chase
Go ugly early, son

...But when you gaze at her beside you
You best rid yourself of pride
Til the colors of your feathers
They match the color of your hide

Cause in the question of the conquest
You might find it’s just as true
That the girl that you chose early
She went ugly early, too]

Be extravagant

Waste money to save time, waste time to save money, waste either or both to improve morale or customer satisfaction. Which raises the question of who was the customer here. At times it was Mike, but mostly it was the The Economist's Group Management Committee. Inevitably, it was hardly ever the users/market for the eventual idea, because the latter didn't exist yet. But there was a noticeable change of temperature, while Bavaria/Lughenjo was being developed, when the team considered the customer as African children who couldn't go to school or the NGOs whom they were trying to work with and support.

Breathe more deeply

Don't mock. It has a calming effect and gets more oxygen to your brain for clearer thinking.

Change ambiguities to specifics

If you have deferred a decision, try and set a value on one or more particulars you have been avoiding just to see if you can at least find a feasible solution.

Change specifics to ambiguities

Sometimes a team gets locked on a particular process or price point or other decision that in fact doesn't have to be made today. You may get prematurely anchored to a particular value that's not important instead of asking what customer benefits are affected by this variable.

From my time observing Red Stripe this is a really useful starting point for any team. (As far as I know, they weren't aware of this list, but they certainly debated and applied some of these principles from time to time - including the Oblique Strategy: 'How would I explain this to my granny?'.)


Innovation teams should, by definition, break rules. But, being composed of institutional conservatives, they need to be clear about which ones to break.

Not really a dilemma this one. More of a resolution: Many of the Oblique Strategies offer ideas about how to handle dilemmas. Decision-making is often hampered by our habit of looking for a single solution. So the suggestion here is simply to value dilemmas as moments of creative possibility, rather than looking on them as something that one gets stuck on the horns of.

'your mistake...': Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt
Danny Schmidt


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