The virtues of messy thinking


How to be creative and resilient in a tidy-minded world

Tim Harford

Hachette India

328 pages; Rs 599


Tim Harford is Britain’s answer to Malcolm Gladwell, the pundit from across the pond who has made a name for himself explaining social phenomena through the prism of epidemiology and decision-making through memory of past experiences. Mr Harford, who writes the popular column “The Undercover Economist” for the Financial Times, has similarly expanded the application of economic theory to events that do not, at first blush, have much to do with the dismal science.


In a number of books, all of whose titles play upon the name of his FT column, Mr Harford has sought to explain things both basic and complex. If you are wondering why it is impossible to buy a good used car, Mr Harford, without delving into George Akerlof’s iconic 1970 paper, will give you a layman’s explanation of the lemons problem, also known as the asymmetry of information. Another time, he would use probability theory to explain why some professions – such as banking and entertainment – are disproportionately high-paying. (It has less to do with talent than you might think, which seems about right for banking at least.)


In his latest book, Messy, Mr Harford has set his sights higher, getting into that slippery but more satisfying field of personal achievement and the power of an idea to propel it. His premise: A little bit of messiness – both physical and otherwise – is essential for unleashing creativity in us, the organisations we work for, and the societies we inhabit.


It’s a deeply researched study, and Mr Harford quotes examples from a wide variety of fields to bolster his point. While he devotes space to office plans where a little autonomy might do your workforce a world of good, his focus is largely on psychological messiness.


Martin Luther King Jr was a master speaker from the time he served as a reverend in Alabama, his Sunday sermons emerging after 15 hours of intense preparation. But “I Have a Dream”, his most iconic speech, was delivered impromptu, as King soaked in the electric atmosphere at Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC on that August day in 1963. Jettisoning his prepared text gave King, Mr Harford explains, the freedom to speak passionately from experience.


Brian Eno keeps a deck of cards that has random words written on them. When he is making music in the studio, he routinely pulls out a card and asks the team to think about what’s written on it. He tells Mr Harford that dropping a word, say “water”, into the high-tension atmosphere inside the studio can have unexpected benefits. Break for a drink? Make the music more fluid? Make it less soggy? The word itself is not important — it is its destabilising effect on the harmony of the flow that can unleash new ideas and energies.


Forgoing a tidy attitude has other benefits. Mr Harford recounts the “messy” approach adopted by O2, a British phone company, when it faced user backlash after its service went down in July 2012. Instead of sending out stock replies to the swarm of complaints pouring in, one member of the O2 communications team decided to play along and reply to complaints individually, with ironic wit. To a tweet that read: “**** you, O2”, the reply from the official O2 Twitter id was: “Maybe later, got tweets to send right now.”


This response, which has since been simulated by countless corporates on their social media feeds, made the news and took the sting out of the blackout. It also won O2’s communication team much appreciation.


To be sure, such moves can backfire. Comfort is often an important dimension of success, so why spoil something that has worked in the past? Mr Harford is quick to point out that he is not advocating disruption for disruption’s sake. He is instead asking that we open ourselves to the benefits of messy thinking by purposely abandoning known patterns of thought and behaviour. Martin Luther King Jr could not have spoken impromptu if he wasn’t already a leader of the civil rights movement who intimately knew the struggles of the black community. With that background, though, a little push away from the prepared text launched him into the stratosphere.


Likewise, only Eno, with his talent and comradeship with his music-making team, could use the random-word cards to distil something of significance from the exercise. In the absence of those qualities, the cards would have become an insignificant, perhaps even harmful, plaything.


From airline mishaps to automated machines, Mr Harford presents several other examples of the limits of an unyielding fascination with the known and chewed-upon. His argument is well taken, especially for an age where uncertainty dogs every aspect of our lives. Giving over to “messy” thinking may be no easy task – the best of us need an external jolt to push us away from the mental maps we use in our daily tasks – but in this highly readable book, Mr Harford uses a tonne of data and stories to convince the reader that it is a habit well worth cultivating.

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