You’ve heard the mantra: ‘Focus!’ You know you need to niche. You understand that multi-tasking is inefficient, and you curse yourself every time your attention wanders from the one thing you know you should be working on. You’re trying to put in place systems and processes to optimise how you work, and when things go wrong it feels like the universe is conspiring against you.
The good news is that it’s not that simple. Tim Harford, the Undercover Economist and author of Messy: How to Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World, argues that a tidy mind is unlikely to be a creative mind, and it’s when things go wrong that we’re likely to step fully into our genius.
This is heartening stuff for me, at least, and a great insight to have in your back pocket next time someone criticises the state of your desk…
Tim also reveals how moving between different modes of communication – from writing a book to writing articles to speaking to presenting on Radio 4 – helps him clarify his own thinking, and he has some brilliantly practical advice for anyone writing their first business book.
Tim’s site: http://timharford.com/
Tim on Twitter: https://twitter.com/TimHarford
Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky
The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/
The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge (starts 5 June): https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/
Alison Jones: Hello and welcome to the Extraordinary Business Book Club. Today I’m here with Tim Harford, who’s the author of “Messy” and “The Undercover Economist.” He’s a Senior Columnist at the Financial Times, and the presenter of More Or Less on Radio 4. He’s also a star TED speaker, and a multiple award winner, too many to mention, except that I love that he was named one of the UK’s top 20 tweeters by The Independent, which I thought was a great accolade. He’s also got a new radio series, 50 Things That Made The Modern Economy, so welcome to the Club.
Tim Harford: Thank you very much.
Alison Jones: Great to have you here, Tim. Now, tell us a bit about yourself – it’s quite an eclectic mix of stuff – and particularly, tell us how “Messy” came about.
Tim Harford: I am a writer and I write about ideas in economics and statistics and increasingly in psychology, just anything interesting in the social sciences. I was trained as an economist, I worked as a futurologist for Shell and I worked for the World Bank. That was in my 20s, and then I’ve spent my 30s and increasingly my 40s doing all sorts of fun social science writing and presenting in all the different arenas that you described in your very kind introduction. How did “Messy” come about? “Messy” originally was the result of me trying to answer the question, “Why’s it so difficult for people in different silos to talk to each other?” Whether it’s academic silos, the economists won’t talk to the sociologists, or the sociologists won’t talk to the economists, or within a business, or within any large organisation.
Why do we filter out people who see the world differently to us? That was where the book started, but I just very quickly got interested in all sorts of boundary blurring, ambiguity, imperfection, improvisation, frustration, distraction, and so eventually the book became something rather bigger and something – appropriately – rather messier than the original book, which… by the way the original topic has been dealt with absolutely brilliantly by my FT colleague Gillian Tett in her book “The Silo Effect.” It was a good job that I moved to a different territory anyway.
Alison Jones: I love the idea of the emergent book, though, and just following your curiosity and coming up with something that’s entirely different to where you started which is so often the case, isn’t it?
Tim Harford: It is. It’s not the first time. A previous book I wrote, “Adapt,” which is some ways my most successful pure business book, “Adapt” is all about experimentation and why we find it difficult to learn from mistakes but why it’s important to experiment and why it’s important to learn from mistakes, and appropriately enough “Adapt” was a highly adaptive book. It was originally going to be how economists are solving all the big problems in the world, like banking crises and terrorism and climate change and so on, and I realised that was A, maybe economists weren’t really succeeding in doing that, and B, maybe not very interesting, but what happened was I realised, “Well, hang on a minute, where problems are being solved I keep seeing these processes of trial and error, I keep seeing these experimental processes,” and where problems aren’t being solved, there’s usually a broken feedback loop somewhere. There’s usually some reason why in fact the trial and error process isn’t working. This terribly boring worthy book turned into “Adapt” which is a book I’m very proud of.
Alison Jones: And there’s a real common theme there isn’t there? Because that sense that the things that got you here won’t get you there: the things that are process driven, that are very efficient, which we tend to want to go for because they’re tidy, aren’t where the party is.
Tim Harford: Yes. Very successful organisations often have this problem that … Or, first of all because they’re successful, they become complacent and they become reluctant to change because why would you change a winning formula? The answer, of course, is well you change a winning formula because it won’t be winning forever because the world changes. But also as part of that, they would often have highly efficient standardised systems and processes that have worked incredibly well and just as the business model may need to change, the winning formula may need to change, the systems may also need to change. One of many things that “Messy” is about is what happens when we take a tidy system that has worked very well and then we try to impose it on a very messy world and we just watch it backfire, and yet we keep trying to do it.
Alison Jones: Innovation is a great example of the most incredibly inefficient, messy thing, essentially, and that’s the innovator’s dilemma, isn’t it? The Clay Christensen thing. You’ve got something that works really well and then you have to go and disrupt it before somebody else does. But how does messiness relate to creativity and to innovation?
Tim Harford: Well, I begin the book with a story of a concert that went very badly wrong. It was being played by the jazz musician Keith Jarrett and he had been booked to appear in the Cologne Opera House in 1975. He was still quite a young man, but not as young as the concert promoter who was just this kid. She was called Vera Brandes, she was the youngest concert promoter in Germany, she’s 17 years old but she just loves jazz. Buoyed by pure enthusiasm, she’s managed to persuade the Cologne Opera House and Keith Jarrett to come together and to do this gig and it’s going to be completely improvised because that’s the way Keith Jarrett works. He’s going to sit down on the piano and he’ll just play.
Alison Jones: I’ve got, “What can possibly go wrong?” running through my head, just listening to this.
Tim Harford: Well, yes, and 1400 people were going to show up. It’s a late night concert and it’s a packed house and it’s a huge auditorium and even Keith Jarrett has never played one of these improvised gigs so low in front of such a big audience. Well, in answer to the question what could possibly go wrong, well, what could go wrong is the piano removal team at the Cologne Opera House, slightly disengaged, not very interested in teenage girls, not very interested in jazz, deliver the wrong piano. When Keith Jarrett shows up a couple of hours before the concert, he discovers that the instrument he’s dealing with, the keys are sticking, they’re out of tune, the upper registry is very harsh, it doesn’t sound good because the felt’s worn away. The piano’s a rehearsal model which means it’s far too small.
You can’t actually create enough sound to fill the auditorium. The pedals don’t work. The piano is unplayable, and of course Keith Jarrett says, “I will not play it. Get a new piano,” but Vera Brandes can’t, there’s no time. It’s Friday afternoon in Germany, everyone’s gone home, and so the only thing she can do is just beg him to try. He looks at this kid and pictures her being ripped apart by 1400 jazz fans later in the evening and thinks, “Well, she screwed up but she doesn’t deserve that. I have to give it a go.” He walks out onto the stage with this really bad piano, sits down in front of 1400 people and he produces the performance of a lifetime.
It’s an absolutely amazing piece of music, and we now understand why the bad piano produced the good piece of music. He wasn’t overcoming the obstacle. The obstacle was actually provoking him to play in a different way, in a way that he hadn’t considered playing, make a different sort of choice of notes, to hit the instrument much, much harder than he normally would because he’s trying to create the volume, to avoid the upper keys which makes everything sound very soothing and relaxing and yet he’s bashing away at it so there’s this tension there and it creates this wonderful piece of music. That’s an opening example of messiness leading to a creative solution and the argument of the early chapters of the book, really the first three chapters of the book, is this is not a fluke.
I mean, Keith Jarrett’s a genius but this is not a fluke. Often when you have to deal with frustrations and distractions and difficult people and awkward strangers or awkward deadlines, very often that provokes a creative response, and there are really two basic reasons why that is. Actually Brian Eno, wonderful producer and composer who worked with David Bowie and Coldplay and U2 and who talked to me at length for this book, he was very generous with his time. Eno, I think, put his finger on both reasons why this happens. Number one, Brian said if you want to finish somewhere different then start somewhere different. The most obvious way to start somewhere different is if you just have a difficult situation, and you’re not starting where you would have habitually have chosen to start, so you start with a bad piano or you start with a difficult journey because the mode of transport you were going to use is down, or whatever.
You start somewhere new and of course you will find new approaches and new solutions, and this isn’t just some mystical idea. This is what computers do when they’re solving complex problems. They throw randomness into the algorithms because it makes the algorithms work better. That’s the first thing. The second thing Eno said is the friend of creative work is attention and the enemy of creative work is boredom. If you are in your tidy routines, you’re going to get bored and if you’re bored, you’re not going to think creatively. You might say, “Well, in that case, why on earth would you stick to your tidy routines?” But the answer is well you stick to your tidy routines because they make you feel very comfortable and because in many ways, they’re working, but they’re slowly lulling you to sleep creatively, so you don’t think of new ideas.
These two things, you’re forced to try something completely new because the old solution cannot work, and second you’re in a fresh situation and a fresh situation is threatening and new and it means you really pay attention. Those two things together I think produce the creative response.
Alison Jones: Yes, a bit of adrenalin is an incredible performance enhancer, isn’t it? I love that and I love the idea about throwing that randomness into the algorithm. That’s a lovely idea. When you’re writing, how does this play out for you? That sense of holding intention, the anarchy and the order.
Tim Harford: One of the things that I have done all my creative life, but not really understood why I was doing until I wrote this book is to multitask. By multitasking, I don’t mean checking Twitter all the time, although of course I do occasionally succumb.
Alison Jones: Yeah, I never do that.
Tim Harford: Yeah but even when I’m succumbing, I’m not under the illusion that it’s a good thing, but my multitasking is to have several projects on the go and you work on one for a while and maybe a while is 20 minutes or maybe a while is 20 days. It really depends on the kind of project and what sort of attention span you can sustain, but at a certain point you switch, you go and do something else. What I have found is that partly this is a creative release. You get frustrated and for a while the frustration is good but then you just run into a brick wall, you don’t know where to go. Well, if you’ve got something else to be doing that frustrating experience just becomes creativity that finds another outlet. So, you go off and you do something else, you work on a different project and then of course subconsciously you’re working on the original project as well.
You go back to the original project having subconsciously solved your problem, or maybe there’s something in the new project that gives you a clue as to how to solve the old project. I mean, it manifests itself in all kinds of ways. A very simple example, I’ve been working on a long piece for the Financial Times magazine and just realising, “Hang on a minute. There’s a whole chunk of idea that I’m struggling to fit in. Originally I thought it was a really good idea but it doesn’t quite fit the thesis and I haven’t got the space and I haven’t got the time,” and just the realisation that, “But hang on a minute, this whole idea I can just remove wholesale and I’ll put it in a column, maybe for the FT, maybe for somebody else at some future date and it’s fine.”
That realisation that that nice idea’s not going to be lost, even though it doesn’t belong in the current project, that’s very important. Now, the realisation I came to writing the book is, “This is not unusual behaviour. This is not some weird aberration that is a flaw in my working patterns,” because I often feel, “Why can’t I focus? Everyone says focus is so important. Why can’t I just do something until it’s finished?” Well, it turns out Darwin couldn’t and Jane Austen couldn’t, and Edward Jenner, the developer of the smallpox vaccine couldn’t, and a number … John Bardeen, who was one of the people who invented the semiconductor, he couldn’t do it, and you just go on and on and on. The huge number of case studies that have been assembled by psychologists who find that creative people, I’m not comparing myself to Darwin, but creative people in general, the way they work is to have multiple projects and they switch between them.
Alison Jones: I can’t tell you how heartening this is to hear, really. I always feel slightly morally reprehensible somehow for not being able to have that focus all the time, don’t you? Well, I do.
Tim Harford: No, absolutely, and of course, there is something to be said for a certain amount of focus and I don’t find that Facebook and Twitter are helpful at all when I’m trying to work. Actually, one of these studies, I said psychologists have conducted these studies, various of them, one of them was conducted by, and I will get his name wrong but I’ll do my best, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Alison Jones: Ah, the flow chap.
Tim Harford: The flow chap, the unpronounceable, unspellable, brilliant… He’s famous for this idea of flow and losing yourself in a project completely, but one of his other projects was about creativity. He interviewed 100 highly creative people, Nobel Prize winners, double Nobel Prize winners, Grammy winners, Emmy winners, Nobel Prize for Literature winners, great scientists, great artists, great novelists, and every single one exhibited this multitasking behaviour.
Alison Jones: That’s fascinating.
Tim Harford: That was from the guy who made everybody think about flow, so they’re not completely inconsistent…
Alison Jones: Actually they’re not, are they? Because Mihaly, him, also says something about novelty as part of flow and that interest, curiosity and engagement… and it is really hard to sustain that in a monolithic task day after day after day, so that does make sense to me.
Tim Harford: Yes, it comes back to what Brian Eno was saying about attention and attention is important, and one of the messages of “Messy” is well, one way to make yourself pay attention to something is to put yourself in a slightly uncomfortable place, to be dealing with something or someone who is challenging you or frustrating then, and then you really do have your attention on the problem. Now of course, it’s not the only way to do that so there’s a wonderful new book by Steven Johnson called “Wonderland” which is all about creativity and play. So, the early computer games, the rubber ball games, spices, fashion, all of these things that we regard as trivial, playground musical instruments, taking them apart, putting them back together again.
Steven Johnson describes how that has been a very, very important source of economic development and scientific development and creative development. That’s really the flip side of this Brian Eno point that we need to find a way to make ourselves pay attention. Now, being very playful, expressing delight, that’s a way of paying attention to something. This threatening new situation, new people, new places, that’s also a way of making yourself pay attention, but what doesn’t work is just doing the same thing over and over again because you’ve developed an efficient system and the efficient system seems to work. I mean, that’s great for churning out cans of Coca Cola. Works fine, nothing wrong with that, but it will lull you to sleep creatively.
Alison Jones: When you talk about those different projects running simultaneously and being able to switch track, I loved, actually, the computer analogy really struck me as well. It’s almost like you’re batch processing in the background while you’re focusing on another task, isn’t it?
Tim Harford: Yeah.
Alison Jones: Do the modes of communication work in the same way? Because it really strikes me that you’re a writer, you’re a speaker, you’re a presenter, you’re a journalist. You’ve got these different modes and scales of communication going on. Do you find the similar synergy there?
Tim Harford: Yes. I am tremendously lucky and very grateful that I am able to express myself in these different ways and they work together very, very well. A newspaper column is a thing you can write in about a day, sometimes you write it tremendously quickly. Sometimes two hours, sometimes it takes longer, but it’s a shortish project. When you’re done, you’re done, and you send it off and you’re proud of it, but that’s last week’s project. A book… “Messy” took me five years to write including, and talk about multitasking, stopping half way through and writing a different book, publishing it, doing the publicity and then going back to “Messy”. They’re very different projects but they’re both solo projects.
Alison Jones: It’s like method writing, isn’t it?
Tim Harford: Yeah, absolutely. I’m doing those things all by myself, but then when I go into the BBC to work on More Or Less, I’m working with a team of people, a fantastic team of people. That’s a different way of working as well. All of those ways, however, are quite private and as much as you do your work and then you put it out. It’s going to take a while before you get any sensible feedback and the feedback is usually far too late to be useful, whereas when you give a speech, that’s a different type of performance again. It’s live, it’s a bit risky, you immediately get to see, you just sense it, whether an idea is landing or not, whether a story works or not. Those four different ways of communicating, the books, the columns, the radio, and the speeches, they all inform each other because I can take an idea from one and try it in another format and I always learn something. Whenever the idea moves from one thing to another, you learn something and maybe you can bring it back to the previous format.
Alison Jones: Tell me a little bit more about that. Just unpick that magic for me.
Tim Harford: One example I really remember was I was asked to give a speech, quite a long speech to an audience in the Netherlands, five or six years ago when I was working on “Adapt.” I had been working on a long and complicated chapter about the war in Iraq and what we could learn from what happened in the war on Iraq and the successes and failure, what we could learn about management, about how organisations fail and how they learn and what it takes and where the learning comes from. Does it come from the top? Does it come from the middle? Does it come from the bottom? I was very, very interested and engaged in this but I was really struggling to write this chapter, and I was sitting in the hotel room the night before the speech. I said, “I’ll force myself, I’m going to talk about this chapter, management lessons from the war in Iraq, because that’s just what I have to do.”
As I was writing out the 3×5 inch cards, I was basically just summarising the chapter but not even going on the stage and giving the speech, it was just the process of writing the 3×5 inch cards, the note cards I was going to hold in my hand, I realised, “This chapter’s in the wrong order. I’ve been working on this chapter for months. Why on earth would you start a chapter where you’ve started it? Whereas in fact you should be starting it with this thing that is 3 or 4000 words in, and that is in fact the starting point and if you start there, then you hook people’s attention and then you get them to understand what really the problem is, and then…” et cetera.
It was eye-opening to me that it was still just me by myself thinking about how to express these complicated ideas and in what order to express them, and fundamentally both writing and speaking, they’re linear. You have to express the … It’s not like a comic strip where you can show things in parallel. You have to express the ideas one thing at a time, so fundamentally they’re similar and yet I was realising all by myself, because I was thinking about a different context, a different audience, that actually the way I’d expressed this idea was all wrong, and the same thing happened with “Messy” actually. For a long time I began “Messy” with a story of Benjamin Franklin’s self improvement journey, which I love and I think is a great story, but that was the story I began the book with and my editors kept saying, “This isn’t the right story.”
It was when TED asked me to give a TED Talk that I realised almost immediately, “Well, of course the story isn’t Benjamin Franklin. That couldn’t possibly be the story. The story has to be Keith Jarrett.” My editors telling me that it wasn’t right, I had to accept what they were saying but I couldn’t see what the solution was, but the moment the curator of TED, Bruno Giussani, who curates TED in Europe, the moment he called me up and he said, “Will you give a TED talk?” I saw the solution very, very quickly.
Alison Jones: Isn’t that astonishing? I think that’s such a great illustration of how switching between modes and particularly I think speaking… There’s something about the immediacy that changes how you frame things, isn’t there?
Tim Harford: Yeah.
Alison Jones: That’s fantastic. What a brilliant illustration, thank you.
Tim Harford: Which is one of the things, of course, the book is about. Talking about Jarrett, Miles Davis, Martin Luther King, where some of those ideas came from and they came to him in the moment. “I have a dream,” the half of “I have a dream” that we remember, that was improvised. The half that we forget was all written down carefully beforehand. It’s really true. It’s really true.
Alison Jones: There is that magic in the immediacy and the constraints and the adrenalin, there it is again, yeah.
Tim Harford: The adrenalin and the ability to listen to what’s going on around you. When you see the reaction of the audience, you see that someone has a frown, someone’s a little puzzled, or they’re responding. That’s what Martin Luther King was amazing at doing.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. Now, I feel a bit churlish asking this because I feel that you’ve done nothing else but give great tips to business book authors, but if I had to hold a gun to your head and said, “What would be your one best bit of advice for somebody who’s in the throes of writing their first business book?” what would you say?
Tim Harford: Actually, it would be go and talk about it, go and talk about it. Talk about your ideas in front of audiences. You can always find an audience and of course, as someone also lucky enough to be invited to speak a lot, but you can always find an audience even if it’s just your local Toastmasters or a brown bag lunch club at the organisation you work in, whatever it is, and prepare a talk about the idea that really gets you excited, the idea that’s really on your mind. You will find the process of preparing the talk I think will be quite bracing and then the discussion afterwards, the experience of giving it. Actually, if I could recommend a book, Chris Anderson’s book about giving TED Talks is wonderful.
Alison Jones: Yes. “Talk Like TED”?
Tim Harford: Yes. No, no. That’s Carmine Gallo’s book.
Alison Jones: Oh it is, isn’t it? Sorry. Yes, of course.
Tim Harford: Yeah, Carmine Gallo wrote “Talk Like TED” which I don’t know as well. I have no reason to think it’s a bad book, but Chris Anderson’s book I have read very carefully and it is brilliant. I’ve been interested in giving talks since I was 12. I used to do a lot of debating and public speaking even as a schoolkid. I’ve always been interested in it. I’ve read so many books over the years. Chris Anderson’s is really standout. It’s well worth reading, but the focus is if you just had to give that one talk that you’re preparing and preparing and preparing, and are not dependent on it, the talk of your life, this is the book that helps you understand how to do that rather than if you had to give a talk about the quarterly sales figures and you’ve only got 20 minutes to prepare. It’s a great book but I think that that process is tremendously helpful if you’re thinking about writing a business book.
Alison Jones: That’s a fantastic tip, thank you. Love it. Now, I always ask my guests to recommend another guest for the show, so someone that they think has something interesting to say about the business of business books. Who would you recommend that I invite on as a guest?
Tim Harford: Well, I mentioned him already. Steven Johnson who wrote most recently “Wonderland,” but has written, gosh, more than 10 books, I think. Most recently a lot of books about innovation and the history of innovation and where ideas come from. He’s a very, very interesting thinker, a lovely mix of business ideas, psychology, economics and history, and he’s a gentleman as well. Just a very nice chap to deal with. See if you can persuade Steven to join you on the podcast and tell him I sent you.
Alison Jones: I will. Thank you very much. He sounds absolutely fascinating, and I have seen “Wonderland,” but I haven’t read it yet, so that will be a great reason to read the book as well. Wonderful. Tim, thank you so much. That was absolutely fascinating. Now, if people want to find out more about “Messy”, more about you, more about “The Undercover Economist,” all the stuff that you do, where should they go?
Tim Harford: Well I have a website where it all is. The only thing you have to do is spell my name right. It’s TimHarford.com, so Harford is H-a-r-f-o-r-d, and there there’s links to my Twitter feed, Facebook, videos of my talks, links to the books and most of my writing is collected on my website, so TimHarford.com.
Alison Jones: Brilliant. I will put that link up in the show notes so people can go and click on it, and yes, very worth following on Twitter, The Independent says so, so couldn’t get a better endorsement than that.
Tim Harford: Yes. People of taste. While The Independent still existed they thought I was good on Twitter.
Alison Jones: Anyway, thank you so much Tim. It was an absolute pleasure to speak to you today.
Tim Harford: My pleasure. Thanks a lot.