Untangling the untidy mind

Best-selling author Tim Harford talks to Joanne Frearson about advantages of being messy. “The person with the messy desk probably has a better sense of where things are,” Tim Harford tells me. “The desk sort of organises itself organically. It looks a bit untidy, but actually you know where the stuff is.”

Promoting the launch of his new book, Messy, Harford – an economist – said he believes corporations should “stop trying to make things look neat.”

“We love tidy charts. We love physically tidy offices. A lot of companies have clear desk policies or have very focused business targets for everyone. But, they don’t really know why these targets exist or why these clean desk policies exist. What they tend to do is breed dysfunction. They annoy workers who feel the boss is constantly on their back.

“They often misdirect effort so you are trying to hit your targets, but you are not actually doing good work you are not making the customer happy and so on. It is a terrible, terrible way to run a company.”

Harford, whose book The Undercover Economist has sold more than a million copies worldwide (he also writes columns for the FT under the same name), tells me Messy was derived from his fascination with dysfunctional organisational structure and counterproductive work targets, which lead people astray.

“I got interested in the way people’s desks self-organise themselves almost organically,” he says. “I got interested in creativity. The book just grew and grew and grew.”

The theories which Harford draws upon in Messy derive from both psychology and computing. If we are distracted or interrupted, or forced to read something that is in a difficult font or operate something which is sub-standard, we very often overcompensate, Harford believes.

“We reach for more creative approaches when we are confused – we step away from our clichés,” he says. “We concentrate harder when we are in a group. We spend more effort explaining ourselves, so the quality of discussion is better. In all sorts of ways we try to compensate for the problem, and we actually overcompensate and deliver better solutions.”

The computer science aspect, meanwhile, concerns how a wide range of possible options is better when searching for a solution to a problem. “It is cracking a code of all kinds of different possibilities, searching for possibilities that might work,” Harford explains. “It turns out that if you add randomness to the search you actually get a better result, because these searches tend to get stuck down dead ends. Noise, disruption and randomness actually helps us solve problems.”

Harford points out that the reason people are often resistant to mess and disruption is because it is out of their comfort zone and makes them shy. “We need to force ourselves into it,” says Harford. “One idea that I have adopted from the ambient composer Brian Eno – which he used with David Bowie, U2, all these great musicians – is to draw a card with random instructions on it to get you to think about the problem in a different way.”

To translate this to the workforce, Harford explains, we need to work with different people to the ones we normally would – someone who has seen a different part of the world, or who has a different kind of training than you. “We need to kind of grit our teeth and assert a bit of willpower – we know what we have to do. We need to just make ourselves do it,” he says. “You will start learning and growing as a person almost immediately.”

This article was published in our Business Reporter Online: Future of Insurance.

Read the full issue online now!


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