What is Messy?

Tim Harford is bestselling author, an award winning journalist for the FT and economist. His book ‘Messy’ broaches a controversial argument, order and tidiness are overrated, a concentration on neatness can be a barrier to achieving success, and that everyone should embrace a little disorder.

He uses examples from all different spheres, ranging from Davis Bowie and Brian Enos approach to making music (rejecting perfection for something interesting), to Martin Luther King’s speechmaking style; evolving from careful and considered, to impromptu genius. And in doing so demonstrates the connection between mess and creativity, confusion and disorder to resilience and responsiveness.

There are five main ideas explained in the book which are:

We try to quantify and impose order on the world, but this has its pitfalls.

Harford refers to big data, how it’s portrayed as the panacea to better predictions, whether stock rises or weather patterns. However, errors in measurement, the human element upon act of measuring (reward for results), and the rogue events which skew data results should add caution to results. There is also the idea of order over disorder. Harford uses the example of the success of Silicon Valley over Route 128 in Massachusetts, where the disorganised nature of Silicon Valley (the freedom for jobs and knowledge to freely be exchanged within firms) encouraged a climate of co-operation and innovation. This was at odds with Route 128 which walled off companies and staff and left them less able to handle crises or new innovations.

Disruptions and distractions prompt us to explore new avenues and get creative

Harford uses several examples to further his argument that disruptions force us to find new creative approaches. He begins his book with the example of the groundbreaking concert given by the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, who was forced to play an old, virtually unplayable piano and had to change his style to accommodate it. The result was a different, innovative playing style which proved extremely successful.

In a study by Shelley Carson referred to in the book, Harford recounts a connection between distractibility and creativity, where a group of students who had accomplished a creative feat, were tested and found that 22 of the 25 were easily distracted by irrelevant details.

The Right Workspace and Network of People around you can enhance your Creativity.

This idea proposes that ‘the strength of weak ties’ (a concept by sociologist Mark Granovetter) or working with a wide range of people fosters a greater level of creativity, than close knit teams whose views and ideas over time tend to converge. The other factor referred to is the actual workspace. Harford uses Google as an example but instead of just looking at the fluff of ping pong tables etc. It is actually the ability to

shape your own workplace, engendering a feeling of empowerment, which leads to more engagement and creativity.

Daring to improvise can give you a serious competitive advantage

Harford believes that improvisation often promotes creativity – the ability to turn off the inner censor to your ideas. This is something researchers found that jazz pianists often do. The researchers examined their brains in tests and found they were able to turn off their inner critic part of their brain. Another example given was the famous ‘I have a dream’ speech by Martin Luther King in 1963, where he discarded his carefully crafted yet uninspiring draft in favour of the unpredictable and improvised speech

Too much automation and order can impede success

This counterintuitive idea states that in relying too much on automation humans have start to lose skills. Using automation means that you no longer have to remember telephone numbers, so the ability to remember becomes more difficult. Harford believes pilots have less ability to handle complex flight situations given the over reliance on computers. He states that we all need to practice dealing with messy situations and break out of our reliance on automation, whilst also embracing messiness to help excel at work.

Whilst order in files and emails and diaries seem obvious Harford argues that too much reliance on order means bloated files, and inflexibility in responding to changing situations. He refers to Arnold Schwarzenegger when governor of California who maintained a virtually empty calendar to stay flexible and productive.

This is a fascinating and insightful read, highly recommended.