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Nudging Oneself – Oblique Strategies

The author Philipp Pullman noticed that often the most popular shelf in a library is the one labelled “Returned Books”, where the books are put before they’re sorted out and put back tidily in their proper places. He concluded that serendipity is a much better guide to discovery and pleasure than knowing what you like and sticking to it.

In my previous posts, examples of nudging in coaching and public administration are interventions chosen and designed by a person who wants to influence others. But especially when it comes to shifting perspectives, we can also nudge ourselves. However, for us the process starts at an earlier stage. In the cases above, the coach, or public service team, already have a more or less elaborate idea, at least a hunch, as to what the problem is, and what change may have a positive impact. The coachees or citizens do not have this idea. Often they don’t even have a clear idea of what their problem is. When we talk about nudging ourselves, we have to take this into account. The method needs to include a phase of searching in the dark, in the hope that some of the things we find will produce a surprisingly good nudge. 

The complex issues where the following approach can be useful, may have to do with leadership and collaboration, with conflict and change, strategy and innovation, design and creativity. Those issues are not technical or bureaucratic. “People are not collaborating the way I think they should.” “The future is uncertain, and yet we have to make a decision.” “Conditions have changed, and yet everybody sticks to their old habits.” The issues in question may be specific versions of such topics. There are thousands of possible causes, probably many of them influencing each other. As soon as we dig deeper, our picture gets more diffuse, not clearer. There is no identifiable root cause. And we, our own mindset and behaviour, are probably part of the problem. We may have ideas as to how to address the situation, but we are not really satisfied with them yet. It may well be that even our idea of what constitutes the problem, is wrong. How could we self-nudge our thinking into interesting new directions? 

Any tool we could design to help us here, would by necessity be “dumb”, incapable of identifying precisely what we need. It will be incapable of replacing our solution-building process. It could only enhance it by a collection of potential nudges. It should therefore be designed with that task in mind from the outset. We need a tool that offers many suggestions, that simply increases the chances of serendipity. What could be, in the sense of Philipp Pullman, a “Returned Books” section of useful ideas to nudge our thinking? And since in the library, previous readers act as a relevance filter – they may not have liked all the books, but at least they have decided to take them out – how could we obtain a pre-selection that chooses potentially interesting nudges amongst the infinite number of things that could possibly be a nudge? 

The nudge that led me to an answer to this question, had been quietly sitting on my bookshelf for years before I came to look at it in a novel way and learn about its usefulness. In 1975, musician Brian Eno and painter Peter Schmidt published a set of 100 Oblique Strategies. These were cards with very short, abstract statements such as: “Make it more sensual”, “Which frame would make this look right?”, “Only one element of each kind”, “Use an old idea”. Especially Eno, who had played in the band Roxy Music and worked as a producer with bands and musicians such as U2, David Bowie, and Iggy Pop, often used the cards in the studio to overcome creative blocks. Stories abound about various musicians’ reactions, often frustrations, to this unusual but successful way of working. Eno’s and Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies are quite abstract statements, but it is evident that most of them relate to the context of artistic creation. That is what kept me from even trying to use them in my context of leadership and collaboration. But once we look at the principles of how Oblique Strategies work, we see that we could easily replace the contents with statements more apt to other contexts. 

I’ve come to see three principles to constitute the power of Oblique Strategies. First, the statements of the cards are abstract. This means that they can resonate with a large variety of contexts. A statement such as “fact or assumption” invites us to check which information is factual, and which are our assumptions. It may invite us to find ways to verify our assumptions. It may prompt us to ask whether all the people involved have the same access to the facts. Whether they have contradicting assumptions, and how to resolve these contradictions. It may point us to ask what assumptions others hold about us. The high abstraction also makes such statements particularly useful in the abovementioned categories of complex issues. We remember that in complex situations, useful approaches are most often highly dependent on context. There are no recipes that work always and everywhere. Oblique Strategies are no recipes either, they are nudges. We can observe that when we invite people to look at Oblique Strategies. If we simply invite them to browse through the statements, the reactions are like they may be towards motivational cards, to collections of quotes. “That’s a good one – and that one is good, too. Huh.” The statements don’t trigger much, they don’t stick. But as soon as we invite people to first think of a specific issue, and then browse through the statements, the reactions are entirely different. Whenever people find a statement that they consider relevant, they immediately follow a train of thought that is highly contextualised. Again, the heavy lifting is done in this contextualisation. The statement is only a trigger, a catalyst. 

The second principle relates to this need coming from a specific context. Before the “how” of a successful approach needs to be contextualised, the “what”, the choice of apt approaches, is indicated by the occasion. The occasion of our issue provides us with relevance filters. There is absolutely no point in coming up with the five best Oblique Strategies of all times, because they may not be relevant to our issue. It is not about good or bad, it is about apt or inept. Pullman doesn’t suggest to take home the whole Returned Books section, but to use other people’s taste as a preliminary filter that may throw into our way something that we, with our own taste and interests as relevance filter, may deem worthwhile, and may otherwise never have found. As described above, people with a specific issue in mind need many Oblique Strategies to browse through. They immediately discard many of them as not relevant, until they find the one that speaks to them, and proceed to contextualise it. Therefore, whatever collection of Oblique Strategies we choose to work with, there have to be many of them, in the hope that some of them are relevant for now. 

The third principle refers to the oblique in Oblique Strategies. We are looking for ideas that we usually don’t have. If we are in general sufficiently cost conscious, then the statement “pay attention to cost” is not helpful, because we have already thought of that. Oblique Strategies should not just invite us to do something else before we revert back on the target. They should propose diverse perspectives, invite us to think in ways that we don’t usually employ, that we are not in the habit of using, that are not at the tip of our fingers. 

On the basis of these three principles, we are capable of compiling our own set of Oblique Strategies, of invitations to look at situations differently. We may fit them to the general context of our work, such as product design, negotiation and conflict, or change management. Once we set about developing such a collection, we realise that the statements we are looking for already exist at the edge of our vocabulary. They may be quotes, such as Peter Drucker’s “Use existing strengths”, of Mary and Tom Poppendieck’s “Delay commitment until the last responsible moment”. Often, they take the form of metaphors, such as Don Quixote and the windmills, “take your fences one at a time” (Violet Crawley in Downton Abbey), the hero who wants do save the world alone (think of Harry Potter refusing his friend’s help), or the image of the gardener who encourages growth – the flipside of the abovementioned saying that grass does not grow faster when you pull at it. Our capacity to think in metaphors is also at the core of collections of inspirational images used in coaching and therapy – those too may be a repository of Oblique Strategies. Based on this idea, we offer a collection of Oblique Strategies for Leaders, and the Peerview app offers a constantly growing number of Oblique Strategies for Change Management, Conflict, Innovation etc. to organisations. Lastly, if your line of work is creative, Eno and Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies are still available. Alternatively, you can create your own repository of Oblique Strategies by simply observing your own and other people’s principles of reasoning and putting them down in a browsable collection. 

Once we have our appropriate collection of Oblique Strategies, there are two ways to work with them. Self-reflection as described above comes in many variations. I know of people who work with cards when they travel by plane, because the constrained space and the limited alternatives as to what to do with one’s time, the “imposed boredom” create perfect conditions. Others pick a card that they consider particularly relevant to them and keep it on their desk for a while, in the hope that looking at it during work – emails, calls, online meetings – may create the kind of serendipity they are hoping to see more of. 

The second way of working with Oblique Strategies introduces another layer of relevance filters – and brings us back to a form of coaching, albeit a different one. We have an issue that we want to reflect on, but instead of browsing through the cards ourselves, we call in a group of peers, of people who are not directly involved in our case. We briefly explain to them what it is about, and then it is they who dig into the Oblique Strategies. Hearing our story, they immediately enrich it with associations from the context of their own experience. If we have four people in the room, there are now four slightly different versions of our story. Those versions may be partly wrong because we didn’t tell them all the details of our case. But their sensemaking skills, their choice of plausible explanations, of coherence, focus, emphasis, colour, are based on their experience. And this diversity of relevance filters may just enable them to uncover our blind spots and point out coherent alternative perspectives to us. And most often, if we look at a situation in a novel way, at the other end we can see a new area of opportunities, a new set of options that allow us to deal with the issue. This is one of the many ways that the strength of weak ties plays out. I have supported many people in this process, and often it is exactly this questioning of their own perspective that they deem most valuable. Once they are at that point, making an action plan is the easy part. But they also say something else, which makes the difference between this use of Oblique Strategies and methods based on simple peer feedback. They say that at the same time, despite the fundamental contradiction to their view on the problem, they feel extremely appreciated by the group, like if they had been carried on their hands. In coaching and therapy, this important success factor is called in various ways: irreverence principle, therapeutic tertium, and ironic alienation, to name just a few. At the core is a separation of an appreciative relationship towards the person and a critical, even irreverent perspective on the topic.

How does this happen? For example, one of the Oblique Strategies I work with says: “You are part of the problem. Your solution starts here.” Now imagine that someone, on hearing our case, chooses these words to give us feedback. We would probably feel as if they’d stepped on our toes. And they, sensing that, would maybe refrain from giving that feedback, although its content is accurate. If, by comparison, such a statement is on an Oblique Strategies card, the process is entirely different. I’ve never seen anybody pick that card and just read it. People always frame it in some way: “I’ve found that card, but I find it is a bit harsh. I don’t know how I can say this.” And the other person reacts: “Don’t worry, we’re tough, bring it on!” This little ritual creates a mutually acknowledged distance between the person and the statement. The “bad guy” is now the card, not the person reading it. The statement has been uttered, but the relationship is safe. It is the nudging provided by the Oblique Strategies that frame this posture.

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