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Messy by Tim Harford


What do jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Donald Trump and German field marshal Erwin Rommel have in common?

On the surface not much.  But Tim Harford says in his excellent recent book Messy that all these people have demonstrated the ability to improvise and embrace messy situations. Mess is a natural state and our efforts to impose order on a disordered world often backfire. Conversely, those who embrace mess can develop their own creativity and, in competitive endeavours, so confound their rivals as to gain a significant advantage. Harford begins by talking about jazz pianist Keith Jarrett’s famous Koln concert. Jarrett turned up to the venue to find a hopelessly out of tune piano.  The 17 year-old concert organiser Vera Brandes begged him to play. He agreed. That turned out to be a very good thing for Jarrett.  As Harford recounts, the piano pushed Jarrett to play keys and notes he usually avoided and in so doing he was able to break out of his normal patterns. The album of the Koln concert sold more than 3.5 million copies making it the most successful solo album in jazz history and the best selling piano album.

The point about Jarret’s unlikely success in Cologne is that forcing ourselves into messy situations where we have to work harder can sometimes be beneficial.

Tech company Amazon expanded well beyond their capacity in the early days. Founder Jeff Bezos was selling more product than he actually had the capacity to deliver. Harford writes that in the first week of operations, Amazon sold $12,000 worth of books but shipped only $846 worth. In the second week sales were up to $14,000 but Amazon only shipped $7,000. The early weeks sound hectic. Many would have taken stock at that point and slowed down. Instead, Bezos embraced the mess of those early days and kept taking big orders and expanding the company.

Donald Trump confounded his political rivals in the lead up to winning the Republican party nomination by constantly changing the terms of the political debate. Trump made bold, in some cases outrageous, agenda setting statements and while his professional politician rivals scrambled to prepare a carefully scripted and work shopped policy response Trump moved on to the next issue. His scripted rivals couldn’t keep up (Harford’s book was written before the election result but the comments about his rival Republican candidates equally seem to apply to Democratic nominee Hilary Clinton).

German field marshal Erwin Rommel was effective because, like Trump, he did not play to a script. Harford recounts examples where Rommel found himself outnumbered behind enemy lines but counter punched anyway correctly reckoning that his enemy was in a messy state of disarray.

The subtitle to Harford’s book is: how to be creative and resilient in a tidy minded world. He gives us example after example where spontaneous mess beats the over planned course of action. I thought it very much built upon an earlier Harford book “Adapt: How Success Comes from Failure” where he pointed out the effectiveness of trial and error methods.

“Mess”, if I read Harford correctly, works when we have the autonomy and adaptability to change course midway through a course of action. Overly planned and imposed creativity does not seem to work too well. An example he gives is of advertising guru Jay Chiat (whose firm Chiat/Day had devised Apple’s groundbreaking 1984 advertisement). In building a new office for the firm, Chiat tried to impose creativity from the top. All desks were removed and furniture Chiat thought to be creativity inducing such as “curvaceous two seater pods from fairground rides” was installed. He also insisted on a digital, paperless office (this was in 1993).

The result was not the outpouring of creative zeal from an inspired workforce Chiat hoped for. Rather, resentment grew within his workforce who felt a loss of the autonomy linked to the creative instinct.

The book also devotes a fair amount of space to the problem of “homophily” (that means love of the same) and the benefits of diversity. Group diversity helps us challenge status quo thinking. As Harford writes: “adding a new perspective or a new set of skills can unstick us, even if the perspective is off the wall or the skills are mediocre”.

Harford talks at length about music composer Brian Eno who uses cards with random instructions such as “change instrument roles” to push musicians in strange and potentially creative directions and unstick them.

Fresh thinking can help to shake things up.

That’s easy to say but it’s harder to actually practise than to preach. It’s also something we instinctively resist. Musicians didn’t like Eno’s cards. Jarrett did not want to play on the out of tune piano. And more ordered enemy generals didn’t want to embrace Rommel’s messy approach.

But we can all gain from a little bit of mess.

The great thing about Harford’s book is it does contain lessons for everyone not just corporate titans, jazz piano maestros or politicians. The two that I took out of it were the problems of imposed creativity and the big gains from adopting out of the box “messy” solutions.

The book is well worth your time. Do read it.

PS: A Ted talk by Harford on “How frustration can makes us more creative”. He talks about Jarrett and Eno.


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