Auto Ads by Adsense

Monday, September 13, 2021

Review: Messy - The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives

 Messy is Tim Harford's book about messiness. It's a surprisingly wide-ranging book covering many topics. For instance, when evaluating scientist productivity, Harford notes:

The top scientists switched topics frequently. Over the course of their first hundred published papers, the long-lived high-impact researchers switched topics an average of forty-three times. The leaps were less dramatic than the ones Erez Aiden likes to take, but the pattern is the same; the top scientists keep changing the subject if they wish to stay productive. Erez Aiden is less of an outlier than one might think. As Brian Eno says, the friend of creative work is alertness, and nothing focuses your attention like stepping onto unfamiliar ground. (kindle loc 397)

Then there's a great section about how outstanding games are built not by a single team, but by a network of teams:

 outstanding games were forged by networks of teams. The social networks behind these games contained several different clusters, groups of people who had worked together many times before and so had the trust and commitment and mutual understanding necessary to pull long hours in pursuit of a shared goal. But the networks were also diverse, in the sense that each of these teams was different from the others, having worked on very different projects in the past. This is not conventional social bridging, where a tidily packaged idea is carried from one cluster of people to a distinct cluster of people, where the idea can be used profitably in a fresh context. Instead, the researchers were uncovering creative tension, where two or three tightly bonded teams with very different creative histories had to find a way to work together over an extended period to produce something quite new. That sounds exciting, and it’s not a shock to hear that the cognitive diversity of the teams was an asset, nor that close-knit teams could achieve remarkable things. But the greater effectiveness of networks of diverse teams, knitted together at what Vedres calls “structural folds,” comes at a cost. “Structural folds shorten the lifespan of teams,” he says. “They fall apart much quicker. The instability comes from different sources. Maybe there are concerns about loyalty, or perhaps just scheduling conflicts. But such groups fall apart much faster than a random baseline.”... The diverse teams were more effective, but that is not how things seemed to people in those teams: team members doubted their answers, distrusted their process, and felt that the entire interaction was an awkward mess. The homogenous teams were ineffective and complacent. They enjoyed themselves and wrongly assumed that because their friendly conversation was smooth and effortless they were doing well. (kindle loc 640-780)

In other words, the cost of diversity is discomfort, but that discomfort is highly generative. To the extent that such teams fall apart faster, that diversity might also be responsible. This partly explains why despite organizational platitudes to improve diversity, in real life we find limited progress --- the increased effectiveness is there, but offset by the discomfort which get teams to fall apart faster.

 There's a great section about buildings that support collaboration and creativity. It turns out that the successful buildings are not the ones that were designed to foster creativity --- it turns out that designers and architects don't know how to do that. The successful buildings are the ones that are so cheap that the people in the building feel like they have autonomy to reconfigure and modify it:

Nobody would have guessed, and nobody tried to guess, either. The hodgepodge of Building 20 was the result of simple expedience and neglect. Where did MIT put disciplines that didn’t fit, researchers who had no clout, projects that made no money, student hobbyists, and anything and anyone else that just didn’t seem to matter? In the cheapest, nastiest space they could find. If Building 20 hadn’t been a mess, these strange collaborations might never have happened. Another key element of Building 20’s success was that the space was easy to reconfigure. Its services—water, phones, electricity—were exposed, running along the corridor ceilings, supported by brackets. This was ugly but convenient. Researchers thought nothing of tapping into them directly for whatever experimental needs they had. Paul Penfield, a longtime occupant of Building 20, recalled: “You know that if you want to run a wire from one room to another, you don’t call Physical Plant, you don’t plunk down a thousand dollars to call an electrician and a carpenter, instead you get out a power drill or a screwdriver, and you jam it through the wall, and you string the wire, and you take care of things right away, and you do it in one afternoon, rather than waiting six months for a purchase order to come through.” ...Building 20’s true advantage wasn’t so much that it was reconfigurable by design, but that the building’s inhabitants felt confident that they had the authority (if only by default) to make changes, even messy changes. It was that it was so cheap and ugly that in the words of Stewart Brand, author of How Buildings Learn, “Nobody cares what you do in there.” (kindle loc 1190-1203)

There's another section about how automated systems that are only partially autonomous are the worst systems for humans to use:

 automatic systems accommodate incompetence by being easy to operate and by automatically correcting mistakes. Because of this an inexpert operator can function for a long time before his lack of skill becomes apparent—his incompetence is a hidden weakness that can persist almost indefinitely without being detected. Second, even if operators are expert, automatic systems erode their skills by removing the need for them to practice. Third, automatic systems tend to fail either in unusual situations or in ways that produce unusual situations, requiring a particularly skillful human response. For each of these three strands, a more capable and reliable automatic system makes the situation worse. (kindle loc 2692)

 There's another section about Erwin Rommel, about how he would eschew planning, sow chaos on the battlefield, and rely on his ability to improvise faster than the enemy. But by far my favorite section is the discussion of the difference between people who pile up paperwork on their desks (me), and the people who relentlessly tidy up:

“We predicted that filers’ attempts to evaluate and categorize incoming documents would produce smaller archives that were accessed frequently,” they wrote. But that isn’t what they found. The filers didn’t have lean archives full of useful and oft-accessed documents; they had capacious cabinets full of neatly filed paper that they never used. The filers were filing prematurely. In an effort to keep their desks clear, they would swiftly file documents that turned out to have no long-term value. In their bloated archives it was hard to find anything useful, despite the logical organization, because the good stuff was surrounded with neatly filed dross. The Borges problem made things harder—as one person told Whittaker and Hirschberg: “I had so much stuff filed. I didn’t know where everything was, and I’d found that I had created second files for something in what seemed like a logical place, but not the only logical place . . . In some cases, things could legitimately be filed under the business unit or a technology. And I ended up having the same thing in two places, or I had the same business unit stuff in five different places.”..The pilers, in contrast, would keep documents on their desks for a while and sooner or later would pick them up, realize they were useless, and dump them in the recycling bin. Any archives were small and practical and frequently used. When the time came for the office move, the pilers had an easy job—they simply kept the top half of every pile and discarded the rarely used lower documents. (It’s that informal Noguchi system again.) The biggest disadvantage that the pilers suffered was that because their offices looked so messy, somebody else might sneak in and tidy everything up, a ruinous act of vandalism. (kindle loc 3476-3486)

In other words, the idiots at the office who keep at you to tidy up your desk? They're wrong. You're much more efficient  than the people who proactively file stuff. I thought that was great. Similarly, this effect extends to over-planning. People who plan everything down to the minute are actually less effective than people who do not planning, but people who organize a monthly plan are more effective than both. In other words, you should set goals, but not micro-manage how you get there:

 The daily plans were catastrophic. Students using them started by working 20 hours a week but by the end of the course they were down to about 8 hours a week. Having no plan at all was just as bad, although arguably it encouraged more consistent work effort: students began by working 15 hours a week and sagged to 10 hours a week later in the course. But the monthly plans were a tremendous success in motivating students to study—they put in 25 hours a week, and even studied slightly harder at the end of the 10-week course than at the beginning. These are huge effects—the monthly plan motivated about twice as much work as the daily plan. When the researchers followed up a year later, these trends had continued and were reflected in the students’ grades: the students with monthly plans were doing better than ever, the students with no plans were treading water, and the students with daily plans were sliding ever further down the scale of academic achievement. (Kindle loc 3533)

The reasons are what you would expect: rigid plans can't anticipate the unexpected, and as a result once you fall behind there are no ways to catch up, and worse, you demoralize yourself.

The book gets even better as it discusses why match-making/dating apps algorithms don't work (other than the obvious disincentive --- a customer that gets matched on a dating site stops producing revenue, while someone who keeps having bad dates keeps their subscription active). There's even a section on dangerous adventurous playgrounds. I myself observed this --- kids who're otherwise whiny and dependent at home suddenly start taking responsibility and pay attention to the park ranger's briefing when told that they might face natural hazards such as bears.

schools opened up nearby unused land for primary-age children to roam free in during breaks. There were no more serious injuries than when the children played in their conventional playgrounds—indeed, there were fewer. And other results were dramatic: when they returned to the classroom from their feral wanderings, their behavior was better. They paid attention in class. Bullying fell to the extent that the school abolished a “time-out” room and halved the number of teachers on duty at playtime.44 (kindle loc 3866)

This is a great book. Whether you're a parent, manager, or just someone who owns a messy desk, you owe it to make the time to read it. Highly recommended. 

No comments: