Posts Tagged ‘oblique strategies’

Planning, chaos and creativity

August 13, 2013 1 comment

I’ve had a number of conversations recently that have revolved around the following kind of scenario and problem.

You’re a writer – or musician, or artist, or any other sort of creative person. You do your thing and you want to make money from it. Ideally, quite a lot of money. But you don’t have a clue how you’re going to achieve it. How do you get people to take notice? How do you get people to buy what you’re selling?

Well, don’t ask me – I’m hardly a model of commercial success. But here are some random thoughts.

When you first look at your situation, what probably strikes you is that it’s chaotic. I don’t have a formal definition of chaos to offer, beyond the usual one of events appearing so unpredictable as to appear random with no obvious structure or organising principle. The second thing that probably strikes you is that to get from where you are to where you want to be, there are few obvious ways forward – and they’re all impossible and blocked. Whatever you do is likely to have unknown, but probably minimal, effects. It’s difficult to read the situation in any constructive way that gives you a sensible plan.

It’s likely you’ll feel the normal advice you’ll get about how to get people to pay attention and part with money – marketing, SEO, social media – just doesn’t stack up. You haven’t got the kind of money, time or expertise that sort of marketing requires. You haven’t got the ‘social mass’ of a million Facebook friends (or even a dozen followers on Twitter) to get more people to gravitate towards you. And you don’t believe the promises of people who say they can get you high up in Google rankings, either.

[There is, incidentally, a whole literature on marketing with social media. One thing that stands out for me are is that much of it is about creating effects at the margins, so it’s only useful to large companies – a 5% increase in clickthroughs on web advertising is worth something if you have a zillion ads being viewed a day, but not if you’re looking for people to click a link from a blog that gets three viewers a day. And anyway, the major social networks are mostly rejigging their search algorithms to favour their big business advertisers.]

What’s next? Well, society isn’t ‘chaotic’ in any formal sense of the term. But functionally it is, from your point of view. In terms of cause and effect, you don’t even know if you have any levers available to pull or buttons to push, let alone what effects they could create. And you don’t know how the world is going to look in a week’s time, let alone a year’s time.

Business planning often revolves around identifying a goal, scanning the environment to assess your strengths and weakness, and for opportunities and threats. Then you identify ‘unknowns’ and seek to find out more about them, so you can set up contingency plans and mitigation plans.

But often this process falls at the first hurdle, because you can’t positively identify how or when something you think of as a strength might become a weakness, or vice versa; you may not be able to determine whether something is an opportunity or a threat (or both), and you can be pretty sure that whatever contingency plans you have, the contingency that actually arises will be one that won’t be covered.

For example, how many businesses have planned for the impact of contact with an alien species? And yet if you look at the World Economic Forum 2013 report on global risks, which summarises the views of over 1,000 risk analysis experts, it identifies several ‘X factors’ – important risks with unknown consequences. They include runaway climate change, significant cognitive enhancement, rogue deployment of geoengineering, the costs of living longer and the discovery of alien life forms. None of these things can be ‘risk managed’ or mitigated by any organisation operating alone, and I wonder how many religious leaders have seriously considered what their stance would be on first contact with an alien race, and how they would advise their followers and how their followers would react – and what the global consequences of the religious issues alone would be.

Under these circumstances, how is it possible to make chaos work for you? The short answer is that you can’t, in any direct way. But you can learn how to enjoy the ride.

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February 4, 2010 Leave a comment

Recently, here and on some Livejournal blogs, I’ve been reading about people having trouble with ‘inspiration’. I’ve never had any problem with this, save that too many things attract my attention and ideas spin off from them. I’m never going to be able to use all of them and I have to pick and choose.

Over on Livejournal, someone was suggesting writing ideas down and putting them in an envelope to be opened in a ‘inspiration emergency’ when you can’t think of anything to write.  Actually I do write things down – not in any sequential or ordered way, but on backs of envelopes, odd bits of paper, a couple of notebooks and a file on my PC depending on where I am and what writing implements I have with me when I get the idea (in an emergency I just text myself the idea and check my mobile later…). It might be a character, a situation, a hook line, a title… The problem is there’s often so much stuff coming up that I never get round to working back through more than 1% of my notes.

Insofar as this is a ‘problem’, I blame a workshop I went to a few years back. It was run by someone who wrote for TV soaps, who said he’d often suffered writer’s block. But, he went on to say, think of what the word ‘inspiration’ means. One definition is ‘drawing breath’. And if you can breathe, you can have an idea. You can start anywhere, literally anywhere, and let your mind take you away. This is of course somewhat similar to the now-famous ‘oblique strategies’ devised by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt, a set of cryptic comments where the idea is that thinking about them frees up the mind to imagine new things, or new ways of doing things, or whatever.

(Actually it might be fun to take a situation and have a character use oblique strategies to negotiate a way through it, much as Luke Rhinehart’s protagonist did with dice in his 1971 ‘Dice Man’. How’s that for instant inspiration? There also used to be a game on the BBC writers’ website, when it existed, that offered you tarot cards for protagonist character, situation and resolution, or something along those lines. While I think of it, the old BBC Getwriting site seems to have been recreated as a standalone called MoreWriting, and there’s still a writers’ community there.)

The other side of inspiration is of course developing an idea. Here I’d have to say that one’s own character comes into play. Firstly, for me, in terms of what grabs my attention (example: immediate problem, write a Personal Development Plan template for use with distance learning). Secondly, in  terms of where my natural inclinations wander (example: immediate thought, how would a serial killer fill out a personal development plan? Would they see serial killing as a craft, a vocation, something that requires training and acquisition of new skills to build up to?). Your milage may vary: a similar situation could be developed as horror, science fiction, romantic comedy or whatever – presumably not with a serial killer protagonist if it was a romantic comedy, but there you go, it could be an interesting set of possibilities… oh, and your oblique strategy for the day, should you care to use it, is ‘breathe more deeply’.

I’ll sign off with the to-do list i just found on my desk, no explanation or context, just the headline items: marking, craft fair, timetable, car hire, chainsaw. I can see these items as relating to horror, but also a romantic comedy. I’m not exactly known for writing romantic comedy but you never know, I think I’ve just set myself a challenge.

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