Why being ‘Messy’ is good for you…

Messy by Tim Harford

Tim Harford is a senior columnist at the Financial Times but radio listeners may know him from his programme on BBC Radio 4 – More Or Less – in which he explores, explains and debunks the statistics in everyday life.  His programme is one of my favourites. (Try this episode in which he (re)analyses the apparent glut of celebrity deaths in 2016.)

He’s written several books before, notably The Undercover Economist and its sequels, and now I’ve read Messy I’m very keen to read them. Messy was thrust into my hands by Mark, the owner of my favourite local indie bookshop. I was hooked immediately.  Some of you will remember my experiences with the tidy-minded Marie Kondo, she of the anthropomorphic socks and zero TBR pile – but this isn’t a book celebrating clutter.

Messy is about how we can do our best work by using the entropy that life brings instead of tidying it away. His theory is that:

‘messiness lies at the core of how we innovate, how we achieve, how we reach each other – in short, how we succeed.’ 

The introduction gives a perfect example. A young concert promoter had lured Keith Jarrett, a jazz pianist famous for improvisation, to give a concert in Cologne. However, they were unable to provide the piano that he had specified. At first he refused to perform, but she begged him to play – he went on to give a career-defining performance on the unsuitable instrument.

The following nine chapters each survey a different aspect of life and how messiness can lead to better things. Creativity, Collaboration, Workplaces, Improvisation, Winning, Incentives, Automation, Resilience and Life itself. Each chapter is enriched by many examples from the worlds of business, entertainment, sport, manufacturing, politics and more…

In Creativity, Harford tells us about the effect that Brian Eno and his ‘Oblique Strategies’ cards – one of which made David Bowie’s band members swap instruments. Ace guitarist Carlos Alomar was forced onto the drums – but good things came out of the sessions.

As Brian Eno says, the friend of creative work is alertness, and nothing focuses your attention like stepping on to unfamiliar ground.

In Collaboration, he discusses how having a team of yes-men, or people whose mind-sets are too similar leads to boring and decreasing results. British cycling stopped winning when the incremental improvements they were making failed to bring medals – a shake-up in their team management did the trick though.

In Workplaces, Harford has fun talking about the very 1990s style of creative office design – taking Steve Jobs’ failed office plans for Pixar having just one set of toilets off the main lobby to force everyone to mingle.  He uses another example of an old higgledy-piggledy building at MIT where anyone from any department could claim an office led to it being a hub for innovation, there was so much cross-fertilisation between occupants.

I’m sorry to use the ‘T’ word, but in the chapter on Winning, Harford hits the nail on the head when he describes how:

Trump’s career politician opponents were tidy-minded, surrounded by complicated messaging operations that crafted press releases and briefed them for interviews, trying to protect their image and prevent gaffes. But not matter how carefully his opponents worded their speeches and statements, a quick tweet from Trump would seize the headlines and keep his poll ratings high.

He goes on to discuss the phenomenon of getting stuck in ‘OODA loops’ – (military jargon which is too complicated to explain here – but Rommel’s successes in WWII is a good example) and how Trump’s team got inside his opponents’ loops.  It is truly fascinating – and horrifying – now we know the results (this book was presciently published in October 2016).

One more interesting example to share with you comes from the chapter on Incentives. He talks about ambulance response times, and how formalising metrics into just one target will always lead to ‘a source of distortion.’  What works better, he argues, is to define many rules of thumb and leave it ambiguous as to which is being used at any one moment. This leads to a situation where the many metrics can’t be ‘gamed’ and well-run services will do well across the board.

Unfortunately the paperback of this book won’t be out until late autumn – and this book is so fresh and thought-provoking, I’d urge you to get your hands on the hardback one way or another. Harford is a supremely entertaining writer, illustrating his text with great examples and stories, and giving witty and clear explanations of them. In closing, he urges us to be more open and adaptable to more messiness in our lives. Something I can fully support! (9/10)

Source: Own copy from my TB

Tim Harford, Messy (Little, Brown – October 2016), Hardback, 336 pages incl notes and indexes.

12 thoughts on “Why being ‘Messy’ is good for you…

  1. Chloe says:

    Ooh, glad you liked this, I bought it a few weeks ago but hadn’t got round to reading it yet. Looking forward to it!

  2. Linda Boa says:

    I think I’d love this! I really enjoy The Undercover Economist series, which I listen to on audio book – I feeI I take these sort of books in well that way – it feels like a lecture, in the best way! Thanks for the heads up on the radio programme; I didn’t know about that. I think this would also appeal to Freakonomics fans – I love these books.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      You know, I’ve never read Freakonomics, but I’ve read about it. The radio programme isn’t on at the mo, but you can listen to the archive of it.

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