Strategy and David Bowie


Strategy and David Bowie

David Bowie. Musician, innovator and, style icon, he died on 10 January 2016 after 5 decades in the creative arts.  Since then, there have been many, many profiles, tributes and obituaries, looking at his development as an artist and his huge and varied body of work, citing his influence on music and on style more generally. But commentary on David Bowie using strategy, innovation and management models to define his career?  Not much has been written on those, so let’s take a look at him and his life from these perspectives.

A defining characteristic of Bowie was his periodic reinvention: of his music, his role as a musician, the persona who sang the music, a true reinvention of himself. The seeds of these elements were sown early – in his early career he played in a number of different bands and across a range of genres. A key trigger appears to be studying the dramatic arts and in particular commedia dell’arte.  Think about one of the key commedia roles, that of the Harlequin – nimble, astute, a trickster and the character whose ability to change his identity is symbolised in his multi-coloured costume.  Is this the point at which Bowie became absorbed in reinvention, in creating different personae? Innovation comes in many shapes and sizes, and reinvention is innovation of the highest order.

Brian Eno was a key collaborator for Bowie. As well as being a talented musician himself, he too was highly innovative, and particularly interested in self-generating music, where different musical elements combine to create something unexpected, just as the characteristics of a child cannot be predicted. He was particularly interested in how to break through creative stalemate and, working with a colleague, Eno developed a set of cards called Oblique Strategies (subtitled Over One Hundred Worthwhile Dilemmas). Each card showed a phrase or question specifically designed to break a thinking stalemate by appraising a situation in an truly original way and so casting a new light. Here’s a few examples of Eno’s Oblique Strategies: Cut a vital connection. Is something missing? Where is the edge? Your mistake was a hidden intention. Discard an axiom.  Bowie reputedly said of the cards: “Never been known to fail” and so we can perhaps assume that they formed part of his toolkit in his recurring reinventions.

From a strategy point of view, it’s really interesting. Many strategies are simply an increment on what went before, similar but slightly different. But Bowie did something much bolder: his personae were changes in identity, and this is the most dramatic shift – in all senses of the word – which is possible. In a business context, organisations change how they do their work very frequently and they change what work they do pretty often. But to reinvent at an identity level – to be able and willing to challenge who we are – is extremely rare, and even more so when it is repeated, and repeated successfully.

This is significant for organisation strategy. Some strategies follow the market and there the organisation’s strategy is to reposition themselves and their offering in a ‘keeping up with the market’ sort of way.  Others co-evolve with the market; the market changes them and their strategy, and they and their strategy alter the market.  A very few totally reshape the market in which they operate, and this is what Bowie achieved with many of his reinvented personae. Strategically it’s rare.

So how did he do it? How did he explore the potential roles to present to the world and choose those which would lead change in music?  Easy perhaps to say that his deep insider knowledge of the industry and an inherent creativity (prompted by Eno’s Oblique Strategies) were enough and perhaps they would have been.  But he used something else as well.  He was influenced by the work and writing of Stafford Beer, a British consultant in operational research and a profound thinker on the role and task of management.  One of Beer’s books, Brain of the Firm, describes how to develop what he termed a viable system, one which is able to survive and thrive despite changes in its environment. It is a book about modelling, and uses the human nervous system as a template and model for the informational and feedback loops which a human body (or an organisation) needs, to stay alive and thrive, to achieve viability, in other words. Unlike most organisational or management models  which assume a given identity and purpose, a key difference with Beer’s Viable System Model is that it describes the capabilities necessary for changing identity.  Viable systems need to be able to adapt to fit their environment or – as in Bowie’s case – adapt their environment to fit them.  He shaped the market to be ready for his latest persona and latest style of music and way of delivering it. What he achieved was a reshaping of the cultural landscape as others – such as Madonna – have followed his lead and built their careers around identity-switching.

You might think that Brain of the Firm, a weighty management tome of 400+ pages, isn’t an intuitive favourite book of a pop star but there it is, he read it anyway. A genuine intellectual curiosity on top of all his other talents and energy.

 “We can be heroes…”

 David Bowie. Strategist, modeller.  8 January 1947 – 10 January 2016