Book Review – Messy

Dr. Mark Gatenby reflects and leaps praise on Tim Harford's "Messy"
Dr. Mark Gatenby reflects and heaps praise on Tim Harford’s “Messy”

You are about to give a major performance, and you discover that your tools are faulty. What do you do? Do you take to the stage and risk your hard-won reputation? Or do you cancel the event, preventing the risk of a substandard performance, but disappointing the audience?

This was the dilemma jazz pianist Keith Jarrett faced in 1975 at the Cologne Opera House. The piano installed on stage was a malfunctioning rehearsal piano with muffled bass notes, plinky high notes, with not even enough sound to fill the theatre. The piano was unplayable.

What happened next? Jarrett ignored his rational self, which demanded ordered perfection, and he took to the stage. The result was an otherworldly sound – an inspired improvisation and an undeniable success. The recording of the Koln Concert:

has sold 3.5 million copies across the world, more than any other solo piano album.

This is the kind of puzzle and unexpected outcome that Tim Harford, the economic journalist, wants to promote in his new book Messy: How to be creative and resilient in a tidy-minded world. Harford has a reputation for producing economic commentary that is a joy to read. Over the past decade he has produced writing which skilfully transforms economic and organisational theory into captivating storytelling. He manages to weave statistical evidence and serious economic debate, as demonstrated in his column in the Financial Times and Radio 4 Programme More or Less, with a lightness of touch capable of getting your eighty year old Gran or your five year old child asking questions. Yes, I am a fan! I have enjoyed Harford’s previous books, particularly Adapt (2012), so this time I decided to take advantage of my Fellowship of the Royal Society of Arts and go to see him talk about the new book in person. You can watch the recording of the event in London yourself:

What you find in a Tim Harford book is not the exposition of a general theory or a systematic evidence base, but a series of questions or themes which knit together into one big idea. This time the idea is that being messy is good. The structure unfolds in a familiar rhythm: a thematic chapter title, followed by a few compelling vignettes that most people can relate to, then just enough evidence to substantiate the key message, then off onto another theme. Messy runs to 328 pages and has nine chapter length themes, not including the introduction about Keith Jarrett. The themes are creativity, collaboration, workplaces, improvisation, winning, incentives, automation, resilience, and life. I particularly enjoyed the chapters on workplaces and incentives, probably because they made me feel better about my own messiness!

There are lots to take away from the book but here I will just set out a few of my favourite examples.

Creative problems are rarely solved through a logical step-by-step process. It is often better to introduce a bit of randomness, surprise, and unconventional connectivity to break through the mental blocks or social habits. The example here is Brian Eno’s ‘Oblique Strategies’, a set of playing cards with strange and provocative things written on, which Eno uses when recording with popular musicians to make their music more interesting. Introducing this kind of mess is of course very annoying to experts, such as successful musicians. Apparently, Phil Collins didn’t take too kindly to the approach. But it works, as demonstrated by Eno’s track record of producing some of the biggest and most celebrated albums of the 20th century.

Driving up performance in dedicated people does not always require a big intervention. Performance can often be enhanced by putting small surprise hurdles in the way of your team. An example here is from education or more specifically how well we learn from a text we are reading. Experiments with school students suggest that changing the printed font to something more difficult to read in the textbook can lead to higher performance than in a comparator group of students reading from more legible text. The explanation for this is that when conscientious people are presented with small hurdles their perfectionism often leads them to overcompensate and therefore perform significantly better than if there had been no hurdle at all.

Work teams can perform better when the team members feel uncomfortable working together. This is well known to organizational psychologists from the work of Solomon Asch others since the 1950s, but we often forget it and tend to form teams with our friends or people like us. But team diversity makes everyone question things that bit more carefully which leads to better decision making. The problem is that the members of diverse teams go away feeling disgruntled and feeling as if the team has been dysfunctional. But this is just the painful internal emotions of not getting one’s own way! We should add that it is healthier if the nature of uncomfortableness comes from unfamiliarity rather than distrust, which will lead to dysfunctional behaviour. The messy process of diverse teams works in many areas outside work, such as in sports coaching or in education. Stop trying to make everything so neat and orderly and allow diverse people to rub up against each other and drive up overall performance in the process. But don’t expect them to thank you for it, or rate their experience as very satisfactory!

Don’t attempt to clear your email inbox or file away your papers. Most filing systems with embedded folders and systematic categorisation do not help to retrieve what we want when we want it, for the simple reason that there is too much complexity in most information; it is too difficult to know where exactly to file it. The most successful filing systems are those where the most important stuff is nearest to hand. In other words, near the top of a pile! It is better to put your email in a general archive and then search for relevant content than attempting to order it. If emails are sitting there in your inbox for weeks, just archive them. You will find them soon enough if you need them. Of course, having things a bit messier also increases the likelihood of random and unpredictable patterns of creativity emerging from the re-reading of your information.

To win you don’t always need to be bigger or better than your competitor, you just need to disorientate them and then adapt more quickly to the mess. Think of the rise of in the 1990s against the behemoth of Barnes and Noble, or the success of Donald Trump against the establishment power of Hilary Clinton. In military jargon it is called getting inside someone’s OODA loop, ‘Observe-Orientate-Decide-Act’, or simply changing the rules of the game by surprising and confusing your competitor. Kick up a storm by doing things they would never do and say things they would never say. But then manoeuvre out of the storm more quickly than your competitor. This strategy seems to have become the new normal in ‘post-truth’ politics.

There is much more to discover in the book from the hundreds of stories. The final section on life is liberating, but ultimately dissatisfying. We all appreciate messiness retrospectively when it works, but, in our lives more generally, we inevitably yearn after a personal idea of perfection. We know that if we give up trying to make things bigger, better and tidier, we will soon lose the motivation that drives us to do anything. We will become contented layabouts wallowing in our own dirt! Messy is a great book with much to teach us about the complexity of the world. I encourage you to read it and reflect on it – particularly if mess makes you feel queasy. Just don’t expect it to solve all of your untidy problems.


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