Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford

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Tim Harford’s books are counter intuitive, provocative, contrarian, refreshing and most importantly sheer fun to read. “Messy” is no exception. In this engaging work, Harford demonstrates how people fight against, survive and thrive by bucking the trend of a world obsessed by the rigours of tidiness, structure, norms and conventions.

Going beyond mere aesthetics and maniacal manuals and regulations cast in stone, Harford provides startling illustrations of people who have made a virtue of normally frowned at traits of chaos, disruptive mindset and a disorganized work place. The flow of creativity seems to find an inverse correlation with the environment in which it finds itself. More ill organized and unstructured the external environment, more original, thought provocative and lasting the creative output. A searing case in point being the collaboration between Brian Eno and David Bowie, were during the making of Bowie’s iconic album “Heroes”, Brian Eno set the cat amongst the pigeons by resorting to his ‘Oblique Strategies’ technique which put paid hopes to all pre-set modes of convention by directing Bowie and his team to produce music representing a staggering proportion of spontaneity. Similar is the Miles Davis experience with his ground breaking album “Kind of Blue” voted by many connoisseurs as the greatest jazz album to have ever seen the light of the day. However, Miles Davis takes great pains to elucidate and articulate the fact that the album “missed out” on some of the crucial elements that he desired to embed. A startled and confused audience received this message with a mix of bewilderment and bafflement, even leading to the conclusion (in some cases) that Miles was simply being overbearing and condescending.

The genius Mathematician Paul Erdos was well renowned not only for his eccentricities but also for his extraordinary breadth of collaborations with fellow Mathematicians in realms and domains spanning a mind numbing range of specialties and sub-specialties. This collaboration (with over five hundred fellow researchers, peers, scholars and students) not only broadened the scope of knowledge of all involved in this endeavor but also lent an uncanny method to solve seemingly intractable problems in one specialty by leveraging on techniques from a totally different sphere of knowledge. Thus what would have been a severely inhibiting restriction in the form of a specialized straitjacket was overcome by random albeit seamless linkages, which in the normal course of academic parlance would be considered irrational, inconceivable and impossible.

When O2 faced both a sudden and unpredictable service outage and the attendant customer ire, a sudden spark of ingenuity resulted in a demolishing of the normally staid, placid and irritating mode of tweeting to customer queries. O2 employees began engaging customers in a self-deprecating tone by mocking themselves and at the same time exhibiting a great degree of customer awareness and concern. This became such a hit with the customers, that exasperation metamorphosed into enthusiasm and soon customers were engaging in role play with O2 executives suggesting captivating memes and humorous captions.

Harford provides more illuminating examples such as the above exhibiting the fact that from disorder stems order and creativity. A tribute and testimony to Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction. “Messy” is yet another feather in an already distinguished hat of Tim Harford.

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