Tim Harford, author of ‘Messy’, explains how breaking out of our routines can make us think more creatively.
It’s a popular notion; that the most creative and ingenious people are messy and disorganised, while those who prefer order and structure are limited in their thinking. And you might be forgiven for thinking that this is the argument at the core of Tim Harford’s new book, Messy. But Harford makes no such claim. Instead, he proposes that it is messy situations, not messy people, that can lead to innovative and creative solutions.
In conversation with the BBC’s Kamal Ahmed at an evening hosted by Intelligence Squared, Harford explained how mess is fundamental.
Human beings like order. From an evolutionary standpoint, having constants in our surroundings enables us to quickly identify and remain alert to threats. But in an increasingly automated world, it’s these threats and disruptions we should be embracing, says Harford; they fill us with adrenaline, and make us more resourceful. As he puts it: “If you’re relaxed, you’re bored.”
The Messy Desk
Image credit: Tim Bowditch
Being messy at work is a perfectly natural phenomenon, says Harford. While other spaces are designed so that everything has its place, such as kitchens and bathrooms, it’s harder to apply the same approach to the constant flow of information into your phone, or the influx of things that cross your desk.
There’s a case to be made that a messy desk is actually a self-organising system. When everything is filed away and out of sight, it’s harder for people to remember details and takes them longer to complete tasks. But if there is a pile of paperwork on their desk, it is automatically sorted to ‘most recent’, with the last viewed item on the top and the oldest item on the bottom.
Of course, rules and structures have value, says Harford, but far too often they are imposed in lieu of culture. A manager will insist on employees having a tidy desk for no other reason than to give themselves a feeling of control. Breaking out of stagnation within organisations, either by mixing up teams or rotating people through different departments, can help employees gain different perspectives and learn new skills. Google’s 20% time is a perfect example of this; having multiple personal and professional projects on the go is a known habit of highly successful people.
The Messy Matchmaker
Internet dating is another area where people say they want some semblance of rigour, entrusting a machine with their romantic future — but what they’re really looking for can’t be quantified. In a research conducted by matchmaking companies, pairing people up by something as simple as zip code can actually work just as well as a carefully constructed algorithm.
Algorithms and machine learning have their place, of course, but even the sharpest AI can’t produce randomness. It’s the human brain’s ability to go off on tangents and make near-nonsensical connections that are so crucial to creativity. Which is why it’s predicted that in the future we will all be “centaurs,” combining the order and logic of computers with our own messy, muddled thought processes.
The Messy Election
Image credit: Tim Bowditch
Challenger brands are the ones that take risks and lean into chaos, not the incumbents. And this is as true in politics as it is in business, as 2016 has proven twice. In June, 52% of British voters chose to leave the European Union, despite having no clue what that meant for the future. And in the United States, the biggest mess of them all won the presidential election.
“Trump used mess as a weapon,” says Harford. And he’s right; zigging when others zagged, Trump’s campaign relied on constantly changing the topic of discussion and keeping people off-balance. The political traditionalists wasted time carefully scripting their responses to one particular question, while Trump would had already offended three other ethnic groups before breakfast.
Of course, Harford isn’t a fan of the idea of a messy presidency. He believes it is incredibly important to be mindful and seek opportunities in times of chaos, but that doesn’t mean being blindly optimistic. “Sometimes,” he says, “a disaster is just a disaster.”