I’m presently involved in a project to deliver an innovation summit event for a major company in New York to come up with some big scale ideas to take the business forward. Obviously I am unable to discuss the company specific details of this, but it is useful to reflect on the design process that will effectively ‘orchestrate’ creativity and innovation across 48 hours. At the same time, I have been a long term admirer of Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies”, recently featured on BBC Radio 4, as they align very much with the suite of creativity strategies and methodologies that I have employed with companies such as Pfizer, Unilever, BT, Electronic Arts, The United Nations et al over 18 years. Oblique Strategies started life as a series of cards, providing a series of ‘diversions’ to linear thinking, much in the same way that Edward De Bono’s Lateral Thinking operates. They are in effect ‘structures for cognitive escapology’ or a set of recipes to help you throw away the ‘recipes’. Contrary to popular thinking on the topic, creativity and discipline are bedfellows, if you want your ideas to reach the market as innovations.
We won the bid against stiff competition from the brand leader in this field, mainly due to a difference in approach that may be summed up as “best fit” versus “best practice”. The competition has a superb toolkit of techniques which is superbly branded. In comparison, our approach is somewhat more eclectic, picking the “best fit” approach from a pandora’s box of approaches, gained through studying and teaching at MBA level for 18 years plus 18 years in the pharma industry formulating life saving drugs, which involves navigating difficult physical chemistry constraints. In essence, creativity has been part of my DNA since I first decided I wanted to be a scientist at around the age of 9. The ‘burden’ of this experience is that I’m all too aware that formulaic approaches to creativity rarely work. As a consequence, our approach to the topic is a harder purchase as it does not promise the allure of “instant solutions”. Instead it considers the needs of the topic under scrutiny and the people attending before leaping to the approach to be adopted. Anyway, enough self-preening! I’m delighted to have won this bid, which will bring together members of our network from Yorkshire, Canada and my associate corporate artist, who will capture insights live at the summit, using cartoons and rich pictures.
Oblique Strategies are effectively a way of ‘orchestrating creativity and innovation’, by systematically diverging and converging a problem. Eno used the Oblique Strategy cards extensively with David Bowie in his trilogy of experimental albums, Low, Heroes and Lodger. In a similar way I tend to design creativity and innovation sessions to systematically move the client through the different phases required to formulate an idea, develop it, challenge it with real life constraints and devise a robust execution plan. This is quite different than turning up with a flip chart, the ‘rules’ for brainstorming and a bucket full of hope – one of the fatally flawed beliefs of the ‘let it all hang out’ creativity pundits imho.
So, what have oblique strategies got to do with corporate creativity? Here’s some of the statements from the Oblique Strategy cards with parallel lessons for creativity and innovation facilitators:
1. State the problem in words as clearly as possible
The key move when facilitating a summit of this nature is to get a clear definition of the topic under investigation. Contrary to what most people think, unfocused brainstorming produces unfocused ideas, most of which are unlikely to convert to innovations. That said, a suitable problem must have sufficient ‘space’ within it to allow for divergent thinking. It’s what I call ‘specifically vague’. For more on this check out Human Dynamics and ‘wicked problems’. Time spent defining and redefining the problem is time well spent and can on occasions lead to answers. You will also enjoy the post on The Centre for Management Creativity re complexity and creativity.
2. Try faking it!
Many good creativity strategies have as their subtext the use of fantasy and projection as their modus operandi, for example Superheroes, Synectics, Dialectical approaches.
3. Honour thy error as a hidden intention
Some creativity methodologies have as their subtext, the introduction of random ‘errors’ as a means of distorting frames of thinking. For example, a range of approaches based on force fitting unrelated stimuli into the problem operate on this basis. As well as deliberate errors introduced by such approaches, it is important to celebrate accidental errors as new ways of finding an answer to a complex problem.
4. Work at a different speed
Eno’s curious advice has some rigour in terms of the background thinking behind it. When we change speed, we think differently. Sometimes slow reflection is more productive than quickfire creativity and pace is one of my key principles when designing creativity and innovation events.
For me, Eno’s principles have direct analogues in the professional problem solver’s toolkit. Let’s finish by hearing a couple of the products of the Oblique Strategies toolkit:
About the Blogger: Peter Cook leads The Academy of Rock – Keynote events with a difference and Human Dynamics – Business and organisation development, training and coaching. Contact via firstname.lastname@example.org