Book Review - Messy
Can a philosophy of clutter boost creativity?
A book espousing the virtues of messiness is bound to be popular with those of us whose personal aesthetic tends towards “jumble sale”. Tim Harford’s latest work is far from a simple justification for slovenliness, however. While a cluttered desk may contribute to wellbeing and productivity, it is not the only area of life which can benefit from a bit of disorder.
Harford is an economist and FT columnist whose previous book (Adapt) has been reviewed here. In this book he again synthesises the findings of sociologists and economists, this time illuminating the subversive benefits of messiness. He also returns to the theme of resilience that he explored in Adapt.
It is not difficult to imagine that the creative process could benefit from a certain degree of disarray, and Harford starts with this intuitive connection. He describes how disrupting a creative endeavour by deliberately seeking to add unpredictability and disorder - “changing the subject” - can lead to unexpectedly special results.
He goes on to discuss the benefits of messiness that accrue in that least creative of all environments: the modern office. His chapter on collaboration makes a business case for “messy” teams characterised by gender, cultural and technical diversity. The natural consequence of such teams is cognitive diversity, which stimulates creativity and facilitates problem solving. In an investment team, the presence of individuals with varied ways of approaching problems helps to minimise the common cognitive or behavioural biases (for example, anchoring and the endowment effect) that work against the investor. Value investing – buying out-of-favour stocks and waiting patiently for their fortunes to reverse – is by its nature behaviourally taxing. For this reason it is particularly important for value investors to be aware of these biases and to work against them. Team composition can make this task easier.
Readers who, like me, spend the majority of their waking hours in an air-conditioned, partitioned, uniformly decorated office space, will be particularly interested by the chapter on workplaces. Harford leads the reader through an array of experimental offices, from the clinical tidiness of Japanese electronics giant Kyocera, to the zaniness of New York advertising agency Chiat/Day in the 1980s. The secret to a productive workspace turns out to lie at neither of these extremes.
MIT’s Building 20, resembling a cross between a “barracks and a garden shed”, embodied many of the attributes that make a workplace a fertile breeding ground for brilliant ideas. When workers have the opportunity to encounter people other than their immediate colleagues, interesting new collaborations are sparked. Workplaces that are reconfigurable and offer some control by staff improve morale, promote lateral thinking, and encourage effective teamwork.
It would be surprising if Messy did not include a chapter on incentives, given that its author is an economist. Harford explains the unintended consequences of what he calls “tidy” incentives, such as those based on optimising a single measure (for example, ambulance response time). Such incentives may motivate individuals and institutions to target the wrong outcome and have unintended consequences, such as ambulance crews failing to respond at all to calls that would take longer to reach than their target time.
As a case study, Harford describes the evolution of financial legislation, demonstrating how overly precise incentives contributed to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-2009. It is possible that legislative targets based on a range of measures, or on a frequently changing set of measures, might prevent institutions from gaming the system to their benefit.
There is much more to learn from Messy, and I encourage you – particularly if you have a tendency towards tidiness – to explore the ways in which a bit of disorder may enhance your life.