Tag: Tim Harford

Why Cross-Pollinating Your Work, Works

At Farnam Street we believe in the idea that a multidisciplinary approach to big ideas is the best way to form a deeper understanding. Some concepts will intuitively lend themselves to this type of thinking. Something like evolution is an easy one. But there are also times when this cross-pollination is far less intuitive, yet can produce some amazing results.

In Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, author Tim Hartford walks us through some amazing examples of cross-fertilization and how purposefully adding a measured dose of chaos to your work can benefit you greatly.

Sandpaper Without the Sand

In the 1920s a gentleman by the name of Dick Drew worked as a sandpaper salesman at the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company.

One day Drew was thinking about the challenge of painting a car — it wasn’t a specialty of his but he could appreciate the problem. What he did know inside and out was sandpaper, and he intuitively realized that sandpaper could help solve the problem. What he needed was a roll of sandpaper without the sand.

This became known as masking tape and it transformed more than just how we paint cars.

Presently we call the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company 3M, and Dick Drew’s insight in the early 1920’s wasn’t an anomaly, it is the type of innovation that has defined 3M as a company. What made them so consistently creative and innovative?

…3M has a “flexible attention” policy. In most companies, flexible attention means goofing off on the company dime. In 3M it means playing a game, taking a nap, or going for a walk across an extensive campus to admire the deer. 3M knows that creative ideas don’t always surrender to a frontal assault. Sometimes they sneak up on us while we are paying attention to something else.

3M also rotates its engineers from one department to another every few years. This policy is one that many companies—not to mention some employees—resist. Why make someone with years of expertise in soundproofing or flat-screen displays work on a vaccine or an air conditioner? For the company it seems wasteful and for the employee it can be stressful. But for a company that makes masking materials out of sandpaper… the real waste would be to let ideas sit in their tidy silos, never to be released.

The key term here that Harford hits on is reducing silos.

Many companies, whether by design or by accident, tend to be very compartmentalized. In essence, you are given a tiny box within which to work on your project but you often won’t have a good idea of what’s going on in other areas of the company; the opportunities for cross pollination are limited unless you commit to moving positions/projects.

By adding just a little disorder, a company can give its employees the freedom to think differently and maybe even help them out of a rut that is often caused by looking at something with too narrow a focus. Sometimes we just can’t “see the forest through the trees” — we're stuck in our little box.

Crop Rotation

A company doesn’t have to rotate it’s personnel into wildly varying positions to achieve this goal; it can be as simple as providing an environment which allows employees to easily work on various/differing projects.

Creativity researchers Howard Gruber and Sara Davis see a strong link between the most creative people and their tendency to work on multiple projects. Gruber notes that Charles Darwin is a good example of this.

… throughout his life [Darwin] alternated between research in geology, zoology, psychology, and botany, always with some projects in the foreground and others in the background, competing for his attention. He undertook his celebrated voyage with the Beagle with “an ample and unprofessional vagueness in his goals.”

And then there are the earthworms. Darwin could not get enough of earthworms. This great scientist, who traveled the world, studied the finches of the Galápagos, developed a compelling account of the formation of coral reefs, and—of course—crafted the brilliant, controversial, meticulously argued theory of evolution, studied earthworms from every possible angle for more than forty years. The earthworms were a touchstone, a foundation, almost a security blanket. Whenever Darwin was anxious, puzzled, or at a loss, he could always turn to the study of the humble earthworm.

Gruber and Davis have coined a term for this melting pot of different projects at different stages of completion, they call it a ‘network of enterprises'. They argue that the parallel project approach has four benefits:

  1. Multiple projects cross-fertilize. The knowledge gained in one enterprise provides the key to unlock unlock another.
  2. A fresh context is exciting; having several projects may seem distracting, but instead the variety grabs our attention—we’re like tourists gaping at details that a local would find mundane.
  3. While we’re paying close attention to one project, we may be unconsciously processing another—as with the cliché of inspiration striking in the shower. Some scientists believe that this unconscious processing is an important key to solving creative problems. John Kounios, a psychologist at Drexel University, argues that daydreaming strips items of their context. That’s a powerful way to unlock fresh thoughts. And there can be few better ways to let the unconscious mind chew over a problem than to turn to a totally different project in the network of enterprises.
  4. Each project in the network of enterprises provides an escape from the others. In truly original work, there will always be impasses and blind alleys. Having another project to turn to can prevent a setback from turning into a crushing experience. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called this “crop rotation.” One cannot use the same field to grow the same crop indefinitely; eventually the soil must be refreshed, by planting something new, or simply taking a break.

Gruber and Davis argue that with the right network of enterprises, an impasse in one project can end up feeling somewhat liberating. If you fall down the wrong rabbit hole you have the ability to pivot to something fresh.

The writer can pull out some old jottings, the scientist can turn to an anomaly she had long wanted to investigate. What would have been a depressing waste of time for a single-minded person can become a creative lease of life for someone with several projects on the go. That’s the theory, but in practice it can be a source of anxiety. Having many projects on the go is a stressful experience that can quickly degenerate into wheel-spinning. (Rather than turning to the study of earthworms for a break, we turn to Facebook instead.)

We have written before about the negative aspects of multitasking and dividing your attention and focus. The goal here would be to find out the number and type of projects which give you the benefits outlined by Gruber and Davis but still keep that number manageable enough to not create an undue amount of stress. This will likely take a bit of trial and error.

Harford himself has a strategy that seems to work. It’s a wonderful mix of messy and organized.

I have a related solution myself, a steel sheet on the wall of my office full of magnets and three-by-five-inch cards. Each card has a single project on it—something chunky that will take me at least a day to complete. As I write this, there are more than fifteen projects up there, including my next weekly column, an imminent house move, a standup comedy routine I’ve promised to try to write, two separate ideas for a series of podcasts, a television proposal, a long magazine article, and this chapter. That would potentially be overwhelming, but the solution is simple: I’ve chosen three projects and placed them at the top. They’re active projects and I allow myself to work on any of the three. All the others are on the back burner. I don’t fret that I will forget them, because they’re captured on the board. But neither do I feel compelled to start working on any of them. They won’t distract me, but if the right idea comes along they may well snag some creative thread in my subconscious.

You can organize your projects like Harford, or come up with your own technique that suits your network of enterprises. The key is to create an environment that allows you to cross pollinate and, ideally, to rotate your crops when you stop liking what the harvest looks like.

If you want more, check out our other post on Messy, it’s a great book if you are looking for ways to facilitate a bit more creativity in your life.

Embrace the Mess: The Upside of Disorder

“We often succumb to the temptation of a tidy-minded approach
when we would be better served by embracing a degree of mess.”
— Tim Harford


The breadth and depth of products and services that promise to help us stay organized is almost overwhelming. Indeed, it would seem that to be messy is almost universally shunned, considered a sign of not being “put together,” while being tidy and neat is venerated to the nth degree.

Tim Harford has a different take. In his book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, he flips this notion around, showing us that there are situations in which disorder is beneficial, or at the very least that order has been oversold. (Tim previously introduced us to another counterintuitive thought with Adapt.)


One of the reasons why we put so much time and effort into being organized and tidy is because we make assumptions about what this will do for our productivity. If all our papers are neatly filed and email is neatly sorted, it will be easier to retrieve anything that’s important, right? Maybe not.

Harford cites a paper by Steve Whittaker and researchers at IBM called “Am I Wasting My Time Organizing Email?” to illustrate the fallacy.

Whittaker and his colleagues got permission to install logging software on the computers of several hundred office workers, and tracked around 85,000 attempts to find e-mail by clicking through folders, or by using ad hoc methods—scrolling through the inbox, clicking on a header to sort by (for example) the sender, or using the search function. Whittaker found that clicking through a folder tree took almost a minute, while simply searching took just 17 seconds. People who relied on folders took longer to find what they were looking for, but their hunts for the right e-mail were no more or less successful. In other words, if you just dump all your e-mail into a folder called “archive,” you will find your e-mails more quickly than if you hide them in a tidy structure of folders.

Okay, so taking the time to organize your email may not be as useful as we thought. Computers, after all, are designed as tools to help us work better and faster, so it makes sense that the simple search function would outperform us. But physical filing and keeping our work space neat makes us more productive right?

Once again, maybe not.

Quite a bit of research has been done on people's working environments and it would seem that those with big piles of paper and/or clutter on their desks may be just as effective (and sometimes more so) than those pedantic ‘fillers.’

This is not to argue that a big pile of paper is the best possible filing system. But despite appearances, it’s very far from being a random assortment. A messy desk isn’t nearly as chaotic as it at first seems. There’s a natural tendency toward a very pragmatic system of organization based simply on the fact that the useful stuff keeps on getting picked up and left on the top of the pile.

David Kirsh, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego studies the differences between the working habits of the tidy types (he calls them ‘neats’) and the messy types (he calls them ‘scruffies’). Let’s look at what he found.

…how do people orient themselves after arriving at the office or finishing a phone call? Kirsh finds that “neats” orient themselves with to-do lists and calendars, while “scruffies” orient themselves using physical cues—the report that they were working on is lying on the desk, as is a letter that needs a reply, and receipts that must be submitted for expenses. A messy desk is full of such cues. A tidy desk conveys no information at all, and it must be bolstered with the prompt of a to-do list. Both systems can work, so we should hesitate before judging other people based on their messy desks.

So if both systems work, are there times when it’s actually more advantageous to embrace messiness?

Here Harford hits upon an interesting hypothesis: Messiness may enhance certain types of creativity. In fact, creativity itself may systematically benefit from a certain amount of disorder.

When things are too neat and tidy, it’s easy for boredom to set in and creativity to suffer. We feel stifled.

A messy environment offers disruptions that seem to act as a catalyst for new ideas and creations. If you think about it, we try to avoid these same disruptions when we focus on being more “organized.” But, if you sometimes embrace a little mess, you may be opening yourself up to more creative serendipity:

Messy disruptions will be most powerful when combined with creative skill. The disruption puts an artist, scientist, or engineer in unpromising territory—a deep valley rather than a familiar hilltop. But then expertise kicks in and finds ways to move upward again: the climb finishes at a new peak, perhaps lower than the old one, but perhaps unexpectedly higher.

Think about an “inefficiently” designed office plan that looks wasteful on the surface: What's lost in efficiency (say, putting two departments that need to talk to each other in separated areas) can be more than made up for in serendipitous encounters.

Brian Eno, considered one of the most influential and innovative figures in music over the last five decades describes it like this:

The enemy of creative work is boredom, actually,” he says. “And the friend is alertness. Now I think what makes you alert is to be faced with a situation that is beyond your control so you have to be watching it very carefully to see how it unfolds, to be able to stay on top of it. That kind of alertness is exciting.”

Eno created an amazing system for pushing people into ‘alertness.’ He came up with something he called “Oblique Strategies” cards. He would show up at the recording studio with a handful of cards and bring them out whenever it seemed that the group needed a nudge.

Each had a different instruction, often a gnomic one. Whenever the studio sessions were running aground, Eno would draw a card at random and relay its strange orders.

Be the first not to do what has never not been done before
Emphasize the flaws
Only a part, not the whole
Twist the spine
Look at the order in which you do things
Change instrument roles

Can you imagine asking the guitarist of a group to sit behind the drums on a track? These were the type of suggestions that Eno is famous for and it seems to be serving him well; at age sixty-eight he has a new album coming out in January of 2017 and some variation of his cards have been available for purchase since first appearing for public consumption in 1975.

We all won’t be able to embrace a card from Eno’s deck. Some people do well in tidy environments/situations and some do well in messy ones — it's probably contingent on what you're trying to achieve. (We wouldn't go so far as recommending a CEO be disorganized.)

Reading through the book it would seem that the key is, like most things, to give it a try. A little “intentional messiness” could go a long way towards helping you climb out of a rut. And, if you are the tidy type through and through, it’s important not to try and force that on others — you just might be taking away a good thing.

If you like the ideas in Messy, check out Harford's other book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, or check out another important book on things that gain from disorder, Antifragile.

Why is managing the creative process so difficult?

The ever-brilliant Malcolm Gladwell, in the New Yorker article, offers:

The psychologist Dean Simonton argues that this fecundity is often at the heart of what distinguishes the truly gifted. The difference between Bach and his forgotten peers isn't necessarily that he had a better ratio of hits to misses. The difference is that the mediocre might have a dozen ideas, while Bach, in his lifetime, created more than a thousand full-fledged musical compositions. A genius is a genius, Simonton maintains, because he can put together such a staggering number of insights, ideas, theories, random observations, and unexpected connections that he almost inevitably ends up with something great. “Quality,” Simonton writes, is “a probabilistic function of quantity.”

Simonton's point is that there is nothing neat and efficient about creativity. “The more successes there are,” he says, “the more failures there are as well”—meaning that the person who had far more ideas than the rest of us will have far more bad ideas than the rest of us, too. This is why managing the creative process is so difficult.

This jives with what Tim Harford says in Adapt. And as to why creative people often have problems inside large corporations, Gladwell writes:

Someone was always trying to turn his tap off. but someone had to turn his tap off: the interests of the innovator aren't perfectly aligned with the interests of the corporation. Strakweather saw ideas on their own merits. Xerox was a multinational corporation, with shareholders, a huge sales force, and a vast corporate customer face, and it needed to consider every new idea within the context of what it already had.

Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure

I'm half-way through reading Tim Harford's new book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure. So far, the book is brilliant.

Anyone who's wondered why it's so difficult to find leaders who can provide us with solutions to today's problems should read this book.

We badly need to believe in the potency of leaders. Our instinctive response, when faced with a complicated challenge, is to look for a leader who will solve it…every president is elected after promising to change the way politics works; and almost every president then slumps in the polls as reality starts to bite. This isn't because we keep electing the wrong leaders. It is because we have an inflated sense of what leadership can achieve in the modern world.

Perhaps we have this instinct because we evolved to operate in small hunter-gatherer groups, solving small hunter gatherer problems…. The challenges society faced, however formidable, were simple enough to have been solved by an intelligent, wise, brave leader.

Harford argues this is not a way to solve today's problems because the world has become mind-bogglingly complicated.

The days of top-down design are coming to a close. Adapt walks us through how any problem —big or small— really gets solved in a world where, even something as simple as building a toaster, is too complex for one man to do on his own.

The toasting problem, after all isn't difficult:

don’t burn the toast; don’t electrocute the user; don’t start a fire. The bread itself is hardly an active protagonist. It doesn’t deliberately try to outwit you, as a team of investment bankers might; it doesn’t try to murder you, terrorise your country, and discredit everything you stand for…The toasting problem is laughably simple compared to the problem of transforming a poor country such as Bangladesh into the kind of economy where toasters are manufactured with ease and every household can afford one, along with the bread to put into it. It is dwarfed by the problem of climate change – the response to which will require much more than modifying a billion toasters.

The complexity of hunting for solutions in a situation where the challenges never stop shifting are the problems of this book. Harford makes a compelling argument for embracing risk, failure, and experimentation rather than top-down solutions to solve today's complex problems.

You can buy the book here.

Here is Tim introducing the book:

Media Bias

Tim Harford with a thoughtful article in the FT:

They found something fascinating: the biases of newspapers closely reflected those of their potential readership, neither pushing to the extremes nor pulling to the centre. The identity of a newspaper’s owner, in contrast, explained very little of the paper’s content. This is exactly what one would expect from a newspaper which cared more about profitability than election results.

This is not to say that newspapers have no influence on readers. It’s just that the influence runs both ways. Readers of The Guardian and The Daily Telegraph are offered news which reinforces the way they look at the world, but such newspapers are careful to listen to their readers, too. Commercial survival depends on it.

Having moonlighted for the BBC during the election, I’ve witnessed its serious-minded attempts to be impartial. It’s not easy, but political neutrality is admirable and, as a journalist, rather addictive. But in a world full of left- and right-leaning customers, perhaps impartiality is a luxury a commercial newspaper can ill-afford.

I think journalistic bias exists. Often journalists determine the angle of what they are going to say and then find supporting information ignoring disconforming evidence. In an older post, we said:

“the reporters' questions weren't geared toward getting a better understanding of those points. They were narrowly focused on one or two aspects of the story… I also realized that the questions that might have uncovered those pieces weren't being asked because the reporters already had a story angle in their heads and were focused only on getting the necessary data points to flesh out and back up what they already thought was the story. …”