And so the scavenger hunt began. At the 11:40 mark, Harford talks about a name that many fans of Rock n Roll have come across: Brian Eno. He has recorded such artists as David Bowie, Robert Fripp, DEVO, U2 and Coldplay in addition to his own musical offerings. But in this TED talk, Harford talks about something that has probably eluded most of us: “Oblique Strategies.”
Eno with the help of a friend and teacher Peter Schmidt who was working on something similar himself, combined their resources and created a box of cards designed to take an artist out of their funk and make them try something different.
In a 1980 radio interview, Eno said of their collaboration, “The first Oblique Strategy said ‘Honour thy error as a hidden intention.’ And, in fact, Peter's first Oblique Strategy - done quite independently and before either of us had become conscious that the other was doing that - was ...I think it was ‘Was it really a mistake?’ which was, of course, much the same kind of message. Well, I collected about fifteen or twenty of these and then I put them onto cards. At the same time, Peter had been keeping a little book of messages to himself as regards painting, and he'd kept those in a notebook. We were both very surprised to find the other not only using a similar system but also many of the messages being absolutely overlapping, you know...there was a complete correspondence between the messages. So subsequently we decided to try to work out a way of making that available to other people, which we did; we published them as a pack of cards, and they're now used by quite a lot of different people, I think.”
The deck of 135 cards had instructions like, “Back up a few steps, what else could you have done?” and “Just carry on.” These may seem like small ideas but when working with musicians who have been in a studio for days and weeks, sometimes small ideas can be the most disruptive and useful in the name of creativity.
In one of Rock’s greatest songs, Heroes by David Bowie, Eno was said to have used these cards to help created the sounds on the song that even today are hard to replicate. At one point, according to producer Tony Visconti, the suggestion was made to put a microphone in the middle of the studio and the end of the studio in addition to the one in front of Bowie. As the song culminates, you’ll hear Bowie screaming the last verse which was needed for the farthest mic to pick up. This was something that pulled the ensemble out of the norm and helps give the song the idea that, as was discussed before the song was recorded, the work would be around much longer than the people singing it.
To this day, the Oblique Strategies cards are for sale but the printings are rare and many of the older printings are considered collectors items. They are still used in recording studios today.
Ask a room full of coaches what offense they will run this season and most, without having even seen their teams play in meaningful competition yet, will tell you a 5-1 or a 6-2. Safe, traditional, non messy...
What if you have three amazing setters, all good servers? Are you willing to sit maybe the underclassman of the three, keeping a true weapon off the floor because of the 6-2 you have traditionally run? Could you run a 6-3 offense? Could you get all three of those good players on the floor in a set?
You have a very physical and strong middle but she’s slow. She doesn’t close a block very well and her transition is too slow to run a fast attack in the middle. Do you continue with your customary ineffective double block on the outside in those three rotations or is there an outside the box option? Can you teach those wing blockers to single block and use your middle to cover the tip and be in transition before the ball gets to the setter, using her more advantageously?
We get stuck in traditional ideas and methods and when those don’t work, we usually only have one other trick up our sleeve despite the plentiful options afforded us by the rules of our sport. There are six rotations on your side of the net. What can you do, in each of those rotations, to score points and gain side outs? If you are really good in rotation 3 in serve receive, could you get away with just two passers? If your serve receive is not so good in ro 5, might you need 4 passers, or maybe even 5?
Oblique strategies, while used mostly for music and art, is a life preserver of how we as coaches can get out of our traditional oceans. Why do you have to run a 5-1 or a 6-2? If your team is young and inexperienced, why not a 6-6 where everybody plays every position? Why pigeon hole your players at an early age? Maybe your tallest girl which is most probably your middle has the best hands on the team, but if she never gets a chance to set, how will you ever know?
There is no “right way” to run your offense or your defense, it’s what works for YOU! Your strengths highlighted, your weaknesses limited, and let the ball fly.
If you have a job other than coaching that sometimes requires a catalyst, an awkward stranger or as Harford calls it, a mess, you can get Oblique Strategies on your phone. The app is available free for iPhone download and android.
In the Oblique Strategies world, the mess becomes a work of art. Rolling Stone voted “Heroes” one of the greatest songs in Rock n Roll history. If you haven’t listened lately, listen to the mess…it's a classic.
Let go of tradition and give “Oblique Strategies” a test. Your athletes and perhaps your team’s performance might be playing a different tune right before your ears….