Everyday strategies – in praise of obliqueness

I was really interested to see the recent report of the organizational change project at Bournemouth – the big rethink. (Apologies to report author Kip Jones, there’s that interested word again). Unlike most change projects which work with SWOT analysis and other strategic planning tools, Bournemouth had used Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s “Oblique Strategies”, also asking staff to work in fold-out notebooks. These eventually became a curated exhibition.

Now I was interested in this. It wasn’t just that the approach was such a welcome shift away from tired old planning processes. It wasn’t just that the process was not only novel but also seemed to me that it would be highly pleasurable to do, be part of and to engage with. It wasn’t only that the materials produced were so much more than a shuffle of chart paper and became an archive of ideas, opinions, narratives and experiences. No, my interest was also in the use of Oblique Strategies.

For those of you who haven’t yet encountered Oblique Strategies, they are essentially a deck of cards which you shuffle and consult to see if they help with your current task-in-hand. The idea is to consult the cards when you have a dilemma or are under pressure. I guess it’s like consulting tea leaves, just a lot more intelligent. Each card – and there are 100 of them in the OS box – provides an instruction which you take, interpret and apply, to see if it gets you any further with the problem than the methods you were using up to that point.

Eno explains that the idea for the cards came from from his own work issues:

The Oblique Strategies evolved from me being in a number of working situations when the panic of the situation – particularly in studios – tended to make me quickly forget that there were others ways of working and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach. If you’re in a panic, you tend to take the head-on approach because it seems to be the one that’s going to yield the best results. Of course, that often isn’t the case – it’s just the most obvious and – apparently – reliable method. The function of the Oblique Strategies was, initially, to serve as a series of prompts which said, “Don’t forget that you could adopt *this* attitude,” or “Don’t forget you could adopt *that* attitude.”

Schmidt shared Eno’s concerns, and through their collaboration Oblique Strategies was born, so to speak. (And there is a card which says Don’t be frightened of clichés BTW.)

There is of course now an Oblique Strategies web version – you can just click and get a random instruction – and a reader contributed version called Acute Strategies (it’s on the same website).

But the real reason I was interested in the Bournemouth take-up of Oblique Strategies is because I’ve been using the very same little box of cards as part of my own writing and research practice. Every week I shuffle the deck, take out a card and try to incorporate it into my week’s programme. It’s a bit like having a desk calendar I suppose, but not one that has cloying little sentiments, nor stirring mottos nor witty quotations destined to make the reader feel completely inadequate.

This week the card I drew out was “Look at the order in which you do things”.

Now I’ve recently been getting in a tiny panic about blogging. I have a mild version of blogger’s block. I’ve been having a little worry right up to the last minute whether I have anything at all to say. Having set myself up to blog twice a week, posting was starting to feel more like a deadline than something I actually wanted to do. I duly connected this problem with this week’s ‘look at the order’ card. I realised that I write blogs one by one, and always on a kind of on-demand schedule. I write either the day before, or the morning on which the post is ‘due’.

So now I’ve changed this order of things to see what happens. I‘m currently writing a series of posts all at once. I’m taking a morning to do first drafts of several posts to see how that affects my attitude. It’s not as impressive as organisational change, but it does seem at present to have done the trick! At the time of writing this, I’m now six blogs ahead of myself.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, blogger's block, Eno and Schmidt, Oblique Strategies and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Everyday strategies – in praise of obliqueness

  1. Brigitte says:

    Wow! I envy you! I am having a real blog-block myself and can’t even think one ahead!!


  2. Jane S says:

    “[…] writing a series of posts all at once” ~ works for me, Pat. AND posts can be edited & re-edited. More often than not I cut stuff out. OTOH, usually only do one post ahead, not half-a-doz.
    As to the block, writing twice a month, *max.*, & to a pre-determined date or deadline, removes anxiety. ‘Off the cuff’ is far too alarming!
    ‘Oblique Strategies’ ~ excellent: the idea of there being other “ways of working and that there were tangential ways of attacking problems that were in many senses more interesting than the direct head-on approach” makes me feel better about my weird research / writing MO. ;-))


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