Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Harford. A messy symphony that almost hits the crescendo

Tim Harford
Hachette, $32.99

The best pop songs start by giving you what you want, and then build up to so much more.

Tim Harford is a virtuoso of pop economics. Originally a development economist, and the coauthor of an excellent but little-read book about aid, he flicked the switch to pop a decade ago with The Undercover Economist, an examination of topics such as why Starbucks charged the way it did, why you were always ripped off when you bought fair trade, and why you could never get a good price for a second-hand car.

Like the early work of the Beatles or the Beach Boys, it was fascinating but straightforward. Then a few books later came Adapt, which piled layer upon layer of stories from psychology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, physics, maths and music to build to an unarguable case that success is trivial and ephemeral unless it comes from the ground up, from recovering from the worst mistakes.

Now there's Messy, a book that presents itself as an impossibly simple account of the virtues of a messy workspace, then builds to something extraordinary.

The chapters on workspaces are books in themselves. BHP gets special attention. Its 11-page edict to its office workers in Perth ("If you wish to display an award, that's okay – but only if you remove the A5 photograph") is a gift to proponents of messy workspaces, as are those of the Los Angeles advertising agency Chiat/Day which tried to create a "workforce of the future" by banning paper as well as personal desks. Harford says employees had to improvise ways to keep hold of the paper copies of contracts and storyboards and concept art. "Some staff stashed binders in heaps in the corner, others used their cars as storage, heading to to the car park to file and retrieve important documents."

In contrast, Manhattan's appallingly unorganised Brill Building and the makeshift Building 20 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology produced some of the greatest music of the 1960s and the greatest technological advances of the 20th century.

Harford sees battles over neatness as battles about control. By browbeating their employees over something that's visible, employers think they'll be able to control what's invisible, which is how well their workers work, although it usually works the other way.

Our own attempts to control our thinking fail for much the same reason. To-do lists are notoriously ineffective, piles of paper are far more efficient than filing cabinets, email search is quicker than logically arranged folders or tags, near-random hookups succeed better than carefully matched dates. Then Harford broadens the field. Generals succeed best in war (and chess) when they are unpredictable, musicians when they are placed in near-impossible situations, hospitals and ambulance services when they abandon clear targets, pilots when they don't always rely on autopilot and great speakers when they depart from the script.

Martin Luther King's most famous phrase "I have a dream" came mid-sentence when he didn't like the next pre-prepared line. Casting around for something better, he heard someone behind him yell: "Tell 'em about the dream, Martin."

But Harford stops just short of the ultimate crescendo. It would be to acknowledge that just as rules can't exert control, neither can we. Most of what we do comes from our unconscious, with our central control unit merely taking the credit. I think he didn't go there because he doesn't believe it. Like most of us with a healthy ego, he likes to think he does it himself.

In The Age and Sydney Morning Herald think he does it himself.