Tim Harford: Why Leaders Should Embrace Messiness, Not Avoid It

Executives shouldn’t fear disorder and distraction. It very well may help them and their companies grow more productive and successful as a result.
tim harford messy

Tim Harford is an economist, author, radio host and journalist who is currently promoting one book while writing another. One would assume he’s an impeccably organized person that is able to juggle this tangle of commitments with ease.
He’s not — but, according to his latest book, that’s sort of the point.

Harford’s most recent release, “Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives,” suggests that readers should do more to loosen the reins on their busy lives and let things get out of hand. They’ll be better for it. Switching between tasks is a “messy” tactic that’s worked for many famous creatives, Harford argues in the book.

Focusing on one project might seem like the most efficient and simple way to organize one’s work. But when someone is stuck on an issue involved in one project, having another to focus on allows that person time for the brain to unstick itself, contributing back to the original project. “This is something that almost every creative person in history that’s been studied has done,” Harford said.

Talent Economy spoke with Harford about why business leaders should embrace messiness, how to encourage their employees to be messy and when it’s best to let things get out of order. Edited excerpts follow.

What does it mean to be messy?

In the book, I talk about all kinds of different things in the context of mess: improvisation, distraction, multitasking, physical mess, ambiguity and imperfection. There are lots of different things that I’m discussing in the book, but I suppose what they have in common is they are arguing for the virtues of the stuff that doesn’t fit into the standard categories; the stuff that we can’t quantify; the stuff that we can’t organize or put into a neat box; the stuff that we can’t script. These things tend to make us feel anxious. We feel that we should have a script; that we should have a number; we should have a target; we should have a tidy desk. Of course, those things have their place, but there’s virtue in all the ambiguous, all the unquantifiable and all the imperfect stuff as well.

tim harford messyToday the trend appears to be to declutter, be mindful and simplify our lives. Why should business leaders be messy instead?

I don’t think that there is a contradiction between decluttering. What I see Messy as being is arguing against the excessive attempts to organize. If you think about your desk, what you find is if you spend a lot of effort trying to clear your desk and trying to tidy your desk away, what you will often find is you have vast archives of paperwork because you filed everything away. All this paper crosses your desk, and you want to get it off of your desk, so you file it. But you filed it so quickly that you don’t really understand your own filing system. So now you have these incredibly well organized wastepaper baskets basically. Let’s contrast that with someone who keeps piles of paper around on their desk. You would think, “Well that’s a problem. That’s not very efficient.” It turns out it’s highly efficient.

No. 1: Your pile of paper is self-organizing. The stuff that you keep using keeps arriving on the top of the pile. The stuff that you don’t touch sinks to the bottom of the pile. We think of it as being a random pile, but it’s not a random pile. It’s actually naturally and organically organized by the process of using it. The second advantage is you’ve got this desk with paper on it, so you’re surrounded by physical reminders of what you have to do, so you don’t need a carefully managed to-do list because you can see in a very visible way the stuff that you have to do. The third advantage is you have a very clear sense of what needs throwing away. It’s the stuff at the bottom of the piles. Of course some people take this to extremes and they hoard paper and they never throw anything away. But very often if you keep a lot of paper on your desk, you also put a lot of paper in the trashcan.

So you have this weird situation where if you walked into someone’s office or you looked in someone’s desk, you would see with a person who appears to be disorganized because there’s paper everywhere actually has a much better organized system and they’re much more on top of their work. Whereas, the person who seems highly organized, actually everything looks neat, but underneath the surface, the system is dysfunctional.

Of course I’m talking about averages here; I’m generalizing. Everybody has their own system, and people can make all kinds of different systems work. If people have found a system that works for them, well that’s fine.

In the book, I write about Benjamin Franklin, one of the most productive and successful people in history, incredibly messy and rather guilty about the fact that he was incredibly messy. He carried a lot of baggage around, literally, in terms of paper, but also psychologically. He felt bad that his desk was messy. Benjamin Franklin! If Benjamin Franklin can feel guilty about not getting enough stuff done because he’s messy, I think the rest of us can cut ourselves some slack.

tim harford messy

Photo: Fran Monks

Nevertheless, in offices we often find somebody in management has decided that there needs to be some kind of clean desk policy, for reasons that are often not very clear. Maybe it’s just aesthetic. They want the place to look like a magazine shoot. Or maybe they’ve read something about how operating theatres work or about how high-functioning precision engineering production lines work. And then in a very inappropriate way, they say, “Oh, and the same must be true for this regular office, which has just got paper and computers in it.” People are ordered to tidy their desks. Now, we’ve already discussed that actually a messy desk can be very effective, very functional.

But there’s another problem on top of that, which is that people really hate being taught that you have this behavior controlled and being told what they can and can’t do with their own desks. It destroys their sense of their own space, of their control, of their environment. Very often when we go to an office, we don’t have a lot of control. We can’t control the windows, we can’t control the air conditioning, we can’t control what’s hanging on the walls. If someone is going to tell us how many pencils we can have on our desk as well, we really feel it’s infantilizing. And yet many companies do this.

When leading a business, when does messiness work best? And how should it come about?

So much depends on context. But I think whenever a business has to adapt, that requires a degree of messiness. There needs to be a relinquishing of some control, and you’re letting your employees have some autonomy and make some decisions.

There are a couple of obvious examples where that might be important. One is when you’re developing something new. There’s a lot of stuff in the book about the relationship between all kinds of messiness and creativity, so multitasking, diverse teams, improvisation, disruption, distraction. All of these things seem in the short term to be inefficient but actually help us produce new ideas. That’s one whole area where a messy approach can be effective.

I think a second area is where you are facing your customer, and you have this decision to make. You’ve got a customer who needs something done, maybe they have a complaint, maybe they have a problem. Are you going to force them through some system, or are you going to treat them like a human being and really listen carefully to what they’re saying and respond to that? Of course, the careful listening involves giving the employees on the help line a lot more freedom, a lot more autonomy to make decisions, and in the short-run that can be less efficient, but you can produce much more satisfied customers.

When faced with a big challenge, many people shut down. How can leaders overcome that mess, and how can they encourage their staff to embrace those messes?

I think that the important thing is that a leader has to model the right kind of behavior. It’s very striking how often you hear leaders who will say, “It’s very important that people aren’t afraid to make mistakes. This is a company where people can experiment. People can make mistakes, and that’s fine. We encourage that behavior.” But when you actually look at what happens, that is not what happens, and the employees know that’s not what happens. They know that when they make mistakes, they are not in fact given a pat on the back and a bonus. They are criticized and shamed and demoted and given zero pay rises or they’re fired. It’s enormously common.

First of all, the leader has to say the right thing and say, “It’s OK to improvise, it’s OK to make decisions even if the framework isn’t quite clear, it’s OK to use your own judgment, it’s OK to make some mistakes. That’s fine.” The leader has to say the right thing, but then of course the leader also has to follow through and demonstrate that in fact what they were saying was true. That’s the hard bit.

Is there such thing as a bad mess or a bad distraction, or do they always have merit?

No, I think clearly there are many situations where messes are just entirely dysfunctional, and distractions just make it impossible to get stuff done. My argument in the book is not mess is always good, distraction is always good, there’s no situation that can’t be improved by adding a little chaos. I don’t believe that at all. What I do believe is that we found that our organizational systems can be so effective, and they make us feel so comfortable that we take them from situations where they work well, and then we start trying to apply them in situations where they’re completely inappropriate.

tim harford messy

Photo: Fran Monks

The argument of the book there is just try nudging the pendulum a little bit more toward mess. Mess is not always good; chaos is not always good; randomness is not always good. But the chances are that we are trying to be too tidy and too organized in whatever situation we’re in. If we experiment a little bit more with improvisation, with ambiguity, with a bit of disruption and new challenge, we might well be surprised by how that improves things.

When should tidiness and order be encouraged over messiness in a business setting?

We need a very clear view of what the organizational system is designed to do. There are many organizational systems that work incredibly well. Let’s just be clear. We’re not being organized for the sake of being organized. We’re being organized for a particular purpose. When you have a very complex problem that doesn’t involve a lot of creativity, doesn’t involve a lot of adaptation, just involves getting everything in the right place at the right time, that’s a situation where you want a high degree of structure. You need to know who’s responsible for who. You need to keep track of everything, not have a lot of slack. Building a skyscraper, for example, or organizing a logistical system.

Even with a particular task like, say, your email or your digital documents, you’ll find that in some cases, an organizational system will work. In other cases, it won’t.

So there are lots and lots of situations where organization does work, but I think if you struggle to articulate exactly why the organizational system is there, it’s probably there for the sake of being there because it’s making you feel less anxious, rather than because it’s actually doing a good job.

Lauren Dixon is an Associate Editor at Talent Economy.

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  • I would posit that Harford is simply justifying the way he keeps his own desk. He’s probably one of those people (as am I to a certain degree) who claims to know where everything is on a cluttered desk. Over my many years or working with open files on my desk, I’ve found that a recipe for disaster. More than once I’ve misfiled documents, written business letters to people who don’t exist at the company I wrote to and have had to pick up and resort documents from files that have been moved around from exactly where I knew they were by well intended cleaning crews. That was in the stone age. Now I am near paperless and while my desk is far less cluttered than it used to be, my computer certainly could be if I didn’t have some semblance of organization to it. Harford’s book may do well with those that want to rationalize their cluttered workplace (and probably their lives) by making “messy” synonymous to “organized,” but my guess is he’ll only be preaching to the choir and won’t find any great influx of converts. As a recruiter I’ve found that organized people pride themselves on their organization and generally interview better because their minds are organized as well.