Adding Mess To Enhance Creativity

October 29, 2016

I suffer from occasional insomnia and as a result have often found myself listening to all sorts of talks on the radio in the middle of the night, usually the BBC World Service.

Now and then I’d hear something that really catches my attention, to the extent that it buzzs round my head the following day and I’d try to follow it up (terrible for my insomnia of course). Sometimes I’d be too sleepy though and, frustratingly, only a vague memory of the talk persists.

One recent example was a description of the way the outstandingly popular jazz piano concert by Keith Jarrett in Koln Cathedral came about. I’d bought the double album (vinyl) in the 80’s when I lived in Germany as lots of my friends were talking about it so the topic had a special ring to it anyway.

I’ve now tracked the talk down, a version is available as a TED Talk by Tim Harford. It’s well worth a listen (see above, just 15 mins long). Here are some extracts from the transcript.

Keith Jarrett had inspected the piano and decided it was unplayable and so wanted a new one, plus a tuner.

So Keith Jarrett left. He went and sat outside in his car, leaving Vera Brandes to get on the phone to try to find a replacement piano. Now she got a piano tuner, but she couldn’t get a new piano. And so she went outside and she stood there in the rain, talking to Keith Jarrett, begging him not to cancel the concert. And he looked out of his car at this bedraggled, rain-drenched German teenager, took pity on her, and said, “Never forget … only for you.”

And so a few hours later, Jarrett did indeed step out onto the stage of the opera house, he sat down at the unplayable piano and began.

Within moments it became clear that something magical was happening. Jarrett was avoiding those upper registers, he was sticking to the middle tones of the keyboard, which gave the piece a soothing, ambient quality. But also, because the piano was so quiet, he had to set up these rumbling, repetitive riffs in the bass. And he stood up twisting, pounding down on the keys, desperately trying to create enough volume to reach the people in the back row.

It’s an electrifying performance. It somehow has this peaceful quality, and at the same time it’s full of energy, it’s dynamic. And the audience loved it. Audiences continue to love it because the recording of the Köln Concert is the best-selling piano album in history and the best-selling solo jazz album in history.

It’s one example that Harford gives of the impact of adding ‘mess’ to problems to help come up with more creative and unusual solutions.

Another interesting example (from a social psychology experiment) is the effect of putting ‘strangers’ into team conversations to disturb complacency and promote improved decision making. I’ve actually tried this myself when I was a manager in a large R&D company and it worked quite well (although it naturally raised lots of eyebrows).

He also emphasises that it’s usually the last thing we try to do as it requires additional and often ‘uncomfortable’ work and we may not even feel good about it afterwards!

The three friends and the stranger, even though the stranger didn’t have any extra information, even though it was just a case of how that changed the conversation to accommodate that awkwardness, the three friends and the stranger, they had a 75 percent chance of finding the right answer. That’s quite a big leap in performance.

But I think what’s really interesting is not just that the three friends and the stranger did a better job, but how they felt about it. So when Katherine Phillips interviewed the groups of four friends, they had a nice time, they also thought they’d done a good job. They were complacent. When she spoke to the three friends and the stranger, they had not had a nice time — it’s actually rather difficult, it’s rather awkward …and they were full of doubt. They didn’t think they’d done a good job even though they had. And I think that really exemplifies the challenge that we’re dealing with here.

The trials and tribulations of creativity.

The book related to this topic, Messy, was published in October 2016 and has had very positive reviews on Amazon and Goodreads (4/5).

I’ve written on ‘oblique strategies’ previously, see here.

More interesting background information on the concert here.