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David Bowie and the Power of Clean-Slate Thinking

May 29th, 2013

I was in London with a client a few weeks ago and managed to squeeze in a museum visit between the meetings and the jet lag. The venerable grand dame of decorative arts, the Victoria and Albert Museum, was featuring a much-hyped, 300-artifact exhibit on David Bowie. I have to admit I’ve never been a huge Bowie fan, but I was curious. I assumed I’d see Bowie’s flashy costumes for Ziggy Stardust and Major Tom, but I was not prepared for the astute business strategy behind the spacesuits and performance art.

David Bowie was unafraid to clean the slate and reinvent himself.

While I’m not suggesting a glitter jumpsuit will jump-start your sales, there’s more than one takeaway for business owners from Bowie’s clean-slate thinking. Here are three gems:

Take control of your brand: Brand control was a lesson Bowie learned in his first job. Before he started performing, Bowie worked in a London ad agency, which had a career-long impact on him. For the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibit, Bowie personally selected the images used for merchandising and authorized the collateral used for promotion.

The message for business owners and executives? Intentionally craft and manage your company image, especially if you are reinventing that image or collaborating with agencies, consultants and other business partners. Be clear about what your company stands for, and maintain that clarity through any changes that you make in branding, strategy or response to your business environment.

Remove mental blocks and barriers to success:  While working on an album with musician and producer Brian Eno, Bowie became a fan of Eno’s Oblique Strategy. The Oblique Strategies were originally developed for musicians and consist of a deck of more than 100 barrier-busting thoughts or questions, each typed on a square card. Here’s a sampling:

  • What mistake did you make last time?
  • Is something missing?
  • Look at the order in which you do things
  • Who would make this really successful?

Whether you are writing a song or thinking about a business situation, having a reliable method of dissolving metal blocks can save time and lead to valuable breakthroughs. Several websites feature the Oblique Strategies as software that displays one randomly-generated strategy at a time. Here’s one to check:  www.oblicard.com

Change your environment, change your perspective: In the mid 1970s, Bowie moved to Berlin. He was at a low point in his career—broke, burnt out on fame and addicted to cocaine. He spent two mind-expanding years in Berlin that reinvigorated his career and produced three new albums.

I don’t recommend hitting creative and personal rock-bottom, moving to Europe or having rocker Iggy Pop for a roommate to change your perspective. There are simpler ways to look outside of your comfort zone for new ideas. The next time you’re at an airport, pick out a magazine you would never normally buy to peruse during the flight. Not traveling? You can do the same at a local bookstore—and read in a café or eatery you have never visited. Another effective option (and the basis for this post) is to visit an art gallery or museum exhibit that you wouldn’t normally visit.

Bowie built a highly successful career around clean-slate thinking. It allowed him to innovate in small ways on small processes to produce big ideas with powerful impact. Clean-slate thinking about your business is what I hope I share with you on this blog, and as always, I look forward to the exchange.