Chaos is a great way to get some neat results

A Perfect Mess
April 27, 2007

Neatness and organisation are considered a virtue, but Cary Cooper discovers that messy approaches can enhance creativity

The opening quote from Albert Einstein sums up the fundamental thesis of this volume: "If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk?" The authors (a Columbia University management professor and a management/business journalist) argue that "neatness and organisation can exact a high price, and it's widely unaccounted for. Or, to put it another way, there are often significant cost-savings to be had by tolerating a certain level of messiness and disorder." They contend that mess isn't just about the clutter on your desk but can extend to your schedule, relationships, thoughts and all aspects of your life.

Although most people believe that neatness, order and being organised is a "no-brainer" in terms of the efficient and effective performance of their work and business, the authors put a different slant on it by suggesting that the actual and psychological costs of creating this order are too great for the return of psychic investment and, indeed, may be counterproductive in the long term. This is a very novel approach and backed by numerous examples in the business world, as well as outside of it.

The book is divided into 13 chapters: "The cost of neatness", "A mess sampler", "The history of mess", "The benefits of mess", "Messy people", "Messy homes", "Mess and organisations", "Messy leadership", "The politics of mess", "Optimising mess", "Messy thinking", "Pathological mess" and "The aesthetics of mess". In every chapter there are examples of how not conforming to systems or logical thinking and order can lead to creative or innovative solutions to problems. For example, a mobile phone company that incorporated low-level noise on its mobile phones because it made consumers feel "connected" and encouraged them to speak more clearly; or the controversial but acclaimed architect who designs state-of-the-art buildings but without blueprints, letting the contractors play with the materials and design throughout the construction process; or the aerospace engineer who was sent in to find out what was going wrong with the F-4 Phantom jet fighter that was crashing all too often; instead of looking at the detailed design plans he just went up in one (without doing any preliminary work) and tried to recreate the problem and figure out "there and then" how to deal with it.

The book is loaded with interesting examples of fairly unconventional and certainly less ordered ways of dealing with business issues that have proved successful. Even in politics the authors found that Arnold Schwarzenegger's first few months as governor of California were counterintuitive. He decided not to have a daily schedule but to improvise and made himself available to all and sundry, based on what he thought might be the important political issues of the day, so that access to him was reasonably unencumbered. The normally well-protected and highly structured access to a senior politican was removed, which allowed Schwarzenegger to get a feel for the issues directly from his constituents.

This is contrasted by the authors' quote at the beginning of the chapter on "The politics of mess" from Ralph Estling, the Skeptical Inquirer columnist, who in a scathing, tongue-in-cheek piece decrying order wrote: "Organisation is a marvellous thing. What could be more organised and more marvellous a spectacle to behold than a Nuremberg rally, with its flags, its trumpets, its serried ranks of thousands or tens of thousands of organised human beings, all shouting exactly alike, all thinking the same thing?"

This book is a must-read, and although some will resist its simple thesis, it develops its counterintuitive argument with panache and numerous anecdotes from business, politics and the arts.

Cary L. Cooper is professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University and co-author of How to Deal with Stress (Kogan Page).

A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder

Author - Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Pages - 328
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 9780297852049

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