Why you should embrace the power of messiness

Untidiness is often frowned on in business, but this book proves it can spark creativity and innovation.

by Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh
Last Updated: 08 Dec 2016

I was instinctively drawn to Tim Harford’s new book Messy. In life and in business, our culture is uncomfortable with untidiness. And, until reading this book, so was I. I’m an accidental entrepreneur, having invented Sugru mouldable glue while I was studying product design. Today it is stocked in more than 8,000 stores and we’ve just recently shipped our 10 millionth minipack from our factory in east London. You don’t get to this scale by being untidy. So for years, I’ve had to suppress my natural messiness in order to succeed.

Now, having read all about the creative benefits and cultural and economic value in being ‘messy’, I’m reconsidering my shame! The premise of the book is that our ‘tidy-obsessed’ culture may be cheating us from being our best creative selves, getting in the way of great collaboration in teams and causing us to invest in workplaces that thwart rather than encourage innovation.

Harford, economist and author of the bestselling The Undercover Economist, anticipates his more cynical readers and helpfully clarifies early on that he is not arguing that messiness is better than tidiness, but that ‘I will stand up for messiness not because I think it’s the answer to all life’s problems, but because I think it has too few defenders. I want to convince you that there can be a certain magic in mess.’

The book dives into contrasting worlds from pop music to engineering. I was fascinated to read more about how David Bowie, who in 1976 was battling legal troubles, a marriage on the rocks and drug addiction, decided to move to Berlin and put down roots by the Berlin Wall. Rather than move somewhere more peaceful to get through his problems, he moved somewhere even more unstable. His producers warned him that the place was the ‘heroin capital of the world’ – and that everything about the place screamed ‘you shouldn’t be making a record here’. But Bowie found what he was looking for in this ‘messy’ location and, amid Berlin’s museums, legendary bondage clubs and tormented geopolitics, he found ‘new ideas, new constraints and new challenges’, leading to a trilogy of hugely successful albums – Low, Heroes and Lodger.

It’s so interesting to think about strange locations as useful for enabling new ideas. When I moved to London from Ireland, to study design at the Royal College of Art, I found myself completely out of my comfort zone – I felt challenged in every way by being surrounded by the most creative people I’d ever met, living in a strange city with no friends or family to go home to. When I started to question the role of product design in our wasteful consumer culture, my world came crashing down. And it was in this messy situation that I started to experiment with materials.

A few weeks of hiding away in the workshop led me to invent Sugru. Had I been enjoying myself, I’m not sure the idea could ever have been found. Brian Eno, who worked with Bowie on those Berlin albums sums up his perspective: ‘The enemy of creativity is boredom, and the friend is alertness.’ 

This chimes within businesses too. Practically, we’re all tempted not to go to faraway meetings or spend time at conferences because they seem inefficient. Perhaps the discomfort of spending that time away, and having to travel may paradoxically lead to us rethinking our assumptions and finding ideas that can ultimately get projects delivered better and quicker.

Here are three tips from the book that I loved:

1. Use ugly fonts sometimes. Research has found that students given study materials in ugly fonts like Comic Sans did better in their exams. The theory is that they had to pay more attention to read them.

2. Don’t bother filing your emails into folders, just use search.  Apparently finding an email through folders takes an average of one minute, and finding the same email using search takes 17 seconds. Forget filing and you can save time twice. 

3. Embrace tensions in your teams. Harford found research that says that diverse teams that often disagree are not only more effective because they bring different perspectives – but the discomfort of the tension in itself increases people’s performance.

This book might just give you the courage to bring more of your real messy self to work and spark the next breakthrough.

Jane Ní Dhulchaointigh is the inventor and CEO of Sugru

Messy by Tim Harford is published by Little, Brown, £20

Image: EaglElla/Flickr

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