Oblique Strategies

I recently learned about Oblique Strategies from Tim Harford’s TED talk on “How frustration can make us more creative”

Link to Tim Harford's TED talk "How frustration can make us more creative"

A transcript is available – helpful if (like me) you prefer reading to watching a video.

Oblique Strategies is a deck of cards created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in 1975.  On each card is written a challenging constraint, and they are used to help artists (particularly musicians) to break creative blocks by encouraging lateral thinking.  There are a number of sites offering online versions of the card deck, such as this one and this one.

As I explored these sites, refreshing the pages to cycle through the different constraints, it struck me that many would be relevant in the library/university context, such as:

  • The most important thing is the thing most easily forgotten
  • Go to an extreme, move back to a more comfortable place
  • Work at a different speed
  • Faced with a choice, do both
  • Listen to the quiet voice
  • Discover the recipes you are using and abandon them
  • Who would make this really successful?
  • Ask people to work against their better judgement
  • Use an old idea
  • Shut the door and listen from outside

Learn more about Oblique Strategies in this article from The Guardian (2009) and Wikipedia’s Oblique Strategies page.

Reverse brainstorming

Instead of brainstorming the outcomes you seek, this approach involves doing the opposite: creating problems for which you can then find solutions.

Here’s how to do a reverse brainstorm, from Mindtools:

  1. Clearly identify the problem or challenge, and write it down.
  2. Reverse the problem or challenge by asking: “How could I possibly cause the problem?”, or “How could I possibly achieve the opposite effect?”.
  3. Brainstorm the reverse problem to generate reverse solution ideas. Allow the brainstorm ideas to flow freely. Do not reject anything at this stage.
  4. Once you have brainstormed all the ideas to solve the reverse problem, now reverse these into solution ideas for the original problem or challenge.
  5. Evaluate these solution ideas. Can you see a potential solution? Can you see attributes of a potential solution?

A good strategy to keep in mind for team meetings – I can see that it could liven up the proceedings!

Librarians as researchers: that’s a good IDEA

I really enjoyed this session, led by Miggie Pickton (University of Northampton) and Carolynn Rankin (Leeds Metropolitan University).

What does research look like?  Everyday research skills include: reading, watching, questioning, summarising, presenting, listening, choosing, organising, writing up, reflecting.  Many of us are already doing research, but maybe we just don’t realise that it is research!

Research is the professionalisation of everyday skills (Blaxter, 2008)

Library practitioners are often highly innovative in their practice and undertake research-related activity as a normal part of their working lives.

This new knowledge and understanding is often not recognised as research nor is it shared with the wider professional community.

We did an icebreaker exercise to meet each other and learn about the types of research activity we had each been involved in:


Library service

What did they do?

Has had to provide evidence of service value
Has engaged with an external quality benchmark
Has and to collect statistics for annual reviews
Has run a focus group
Has written and/or presented a report to their organisation
Has helped a service user find resources for their research
Has contributed to a publication
Has explored ways of improving their service

Miggie and Carolynn introduced the framework for developing your research:

I=interest, issue, idea
D=develop, discuss, define
E=engage, elaborate, enact
A=advocate, advertise, apply

I=interest, issue, idea

  • Identify a project or research opportunity that interests you or meets a need
  • What do I want to know?
  • How could this help my practice or benefit my organisation?
  • What’s in it for me?

D=develop, discuss, define

  • Define the research question
  • What has been done on this before? Where is the evidence base? Where are the gaps?
  • Develop the project proposal – SMART objectives, appropriate methods

E=engage, elaborate, enact

  • Partnership and connections
  • Look for common goals
  • Win-win agenda
  • Who will you engage with and how?
  • This might be partners, colleagues, management, funders, policymakers

A=advocate, advertise, apply

  • Who needs to know about your work? Service users, managers, funders, policymakers
  • Where will your research make a different?
  • Effecting change within and beyond the library


Finally, the multiplier effect comes in when you add skills.

This session was practical and energising, and it started me thinking about the many ways I could apply these ideas to my work.

Time for innovation

I have recently subscribed to Freakonomics Radio, and their recent podcast about “Reading, Rockets, and ‘Rithmetic” started me thinking.

The theme was about how you motivate people and groups to innovate, and mentioned Google’s 20 percent time, “a program where Google engineers spend one-fifth of their work hours on their own pet projects”.

I love the idea of being given work time specifically to try out new ideas.  Instead of holding a 60-minute brainstorming meeting with 20 attendees, costing 20 person-hours, why not give individuals ring-fenced time for trying out new ideas?  I’m not sure libraries and other workplaces are ready for this yet, but I feel excited at the possibility of a day a week, or one week in five to do something creative and different.

This is an idea to keep in reserve and look out for future opportunities to make it happen…