TED Talk: Tim Hardford: How messy problems can inspire creativity

Then the producer came over to Vera and said … “If you don’t get a new piano, Keith can’t play.”

There’d been a mistake. The opera house had provided the wrong instrument. This one had this harsh, tinny upper register, because all the felt had worn away. The black notes were sticking, the white notes were out of tune, the pedals didn’t work and the piano itself was just too small. It wouldn’t create the volume that would fill a large space such as the Cologne Opera House.

.. Obviously I’m going to say that the groups with the stranger solved the problem more effectively, which is true, they did. Actually, they solved the problem quite a lot more effectively. So the groups of four friends, they only had a 50-50 chance of getting the answer right. Which is actually not that great — in multiple choice, for three answers? 50-50’s not good.


The three friends and the stranger, even though the stranger didn’t have any extra information, even though it was just a case of how that changed the conversation to accommodate that awkwardness, the three friends and the stranger, they had a 75 percent chance of finding the right answer. That’s quite a big leap in performance.

But I think what’s really interesting is not just that the three friends and the stranger did a better job, but how they felt about it. So when Katherine Phillips interviewed the groups of four friends, they had a nice time, they also thought they’d done a good job. They were complacent. When she spoke to the three friends and the stranger, they had not had a nice time — it’s actually rather difficult, it’s rather awkward … and they were full of doubt. They didn’t think they’d done a good job even though they had. And I think that really exemplifies the challenge that we’re dealing with here.

.. Brian Eno. He is an ambient composer — rather brilliant.

He’s also a kind of catalyst behind some of the great rock ‘n’ roll albums of the last 40 years. He’s worked with David Bowie on “Heroes,” he worked with U2 on “Achtung Baby” and “The Joshua Tree,” he’s worked with DEVO, he’s worked with Coldplay, he’s worked with everybody.

And what does he do to make these great rock bands better? Well, he makes a mess. He disrupts their creative processes. It’s his role to be the awkward stranger. It’s his role to tell them that they have to play the unplayable piano.

And one of the ways in which he creates this disruption is through this remarkable deck of cards — I have my signed copy here — thank you, Brian. They’re called The Oblique Strategies, he developed them with a friend of his. And when they’re stuck in the studio, Brian Eno will reach for one of the cards. He’ll draw one at random, and he’ll make the band follow the instructions on the card.

So this one … “Change instrument roles.” Yeah, everyone swap instruments — Drummer on the piano — Brilliant, brilliant idea.

.. 12:54
So this one … “Change instrument roles.” Yeah, everyone swap instruments — Drummer on the piano — Brilliant, brilliant idea.

“Look closely at the most embarrassing details. Amplify them.”

“Make a sudden, destructive, unpredictable action. Incorporate.”

These cards are disruptive.

Now, they’ve proved their worth in album after album. The musicians hate them.


So Phil Collins was playing drums on an early Brian Eno album. He got so frustrated he started throwing beer cans across the studio.

Carlos Alomar, great rock guitarist, working with Eno on David Bowie’s “Lodger” album, and at one point he turns to Brian and says, “Brian, this experiment is stupid.” But the thing is it was a pretty good album, but also, Carlos Alomar, 35 years later, now uses The Oblique Strategies. And he tells his students to use The Oblique Strategies because he’s realized something. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it isn’t helping you.

The strategies actually weren’t a deck of cards originally, they were just a list — list on the recording studio wall. A checklist of things you might try if you got stuck.

The list didn’t work. Know why? Not messy enough. Your eye would go down the list and it would settle on whatever was the least disruptive, the least troublesome, which of course misses the point entirely.

.. So however we do it … whether it’s sheer willpower, whether it’s the flip of a card or whether it’s a guilt trip from a German teenager, all of us, from time to time, need to sit down and try and play the unplayable piano.