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Go Ahead, Make A Mess

Don't let the neat freaks push you around. Chaos, clutter, disorganization, and on-the-fly decision-making actually are good for your company--and for you.
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In the late 1950s, Louis Strymish walked away from his budding career as a Harvard-trained chemist, borrowed a few thousand dollars from a friend, and opened a small bookstore outside Boston. An inveterate reader and eccentric who had to overcome severe dyslexia as a child, Strymish didn't think it worth the trouble to organize his store's wares into standard categories. Instead, he just dumped the books from the publishers' boxes right onto the shelves, figuring buyers could hunt down the books they wanted by looking up the publisher or by rummaging randomly. It wasn't just the chintzy, cramped décor, complete with unpacked boxes and piles of unshelved books, that made the place a mess. To the typical browser, the shelves may have seemed to be a hopeless hodgepodge. But less sorting meant less staff, which translated into lower prices. And a funny thing happened: A lot of people discovered they liked hunting through a mess of oddly arranged books and discovering several they never would have thought to look for.

Today, customers of the New England Mobile Book Fair--or Strymish's, as it's known locally--pick their way through a dense, dingy, 30,000-square-foot forest of still-cheap, still-cramped shelving creaking with some two million titles. The store is run by Louis's sons, Jon and David, who took over when Louis passed away in 1983, and by their childhood friend Steve Gans, who they hired away from a law firm. Jon has stocked the store with an odd mix of new and bargain books, the latter consisting mostly of steeply discounted and remaindered books. His impulsive choices, unsupported by research or guidelines, would baffle most bookstore buyers. Last year, for example, he grabbed 500 copies of Edward Gorey's The Headless Bust--a book that probably saw no order larger than a dozen from any other bookstore in the world.

The Book Fair is a crazy quilt of a company. Gans operates out of the landing of a back stairway; all the back-office rooms are filled with piles of books, leaving little space for desks. David Strymish co-founded a coffee bean business that occasioned the importing of an industrial roaster into the company, and added an online cookbook business called Jessica's Biscuit, which competes head-to-head with Amazon.com. Where Amazon famously runs a robotic, hyperorganized, Segway-scooterized fulfillment operation, Jessica's inventory room looks more the way one imagines a Dumpster outside an Amazon warehouse might look. "Okay, it's not as organized as it could be," says Gans, surveying the scene.

Does this seem like a rather inept way to run a company that has to compete with the highly ordered likes of Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), Barnes & Noble (NYSE:BKS), and Borders (NYSE:BGP)? Actually, the Book Fair stands within five miles of two Barnes & Noble and two Borders stores constituting some 120,000 square feet of direct competition. But with sales roughly in the $10 million range, the squat, featureless store outsells all four of them and manages to produce about twice the sales of an average big-box bookstore. In fact, that large, strange hodgepodge of discount books is a money machine, accounting for 50 percent of the operation's revenue. Jessica's, meanwhile, has been able to match or beat Amazon's pricing and cheap shipping while building sales and remaining profitable.

The Book Fair is a mess. And therein, I believe, lies the secret of its success. It saves a fortune by not creating a spacious, pristine, perfectly arranged shopping area. Its confusing sea of discount books resonates with customers. Its managers do what they want, jumping on opportunities when they see them; the projects that fly are nurtured, the ones that don't are allowed to languish. Its operations rely not on finely tuned, heavily automated processes but on the enthusiasm and savvy of employees who work the way that suits them best.

Virtually all the advice from get-organized gurus falls apart on close inspection. but we're so desperate to add order to our lives that we eat it up without questioning.

It may seem odd to credit messiness for business success. But that's because mess and disorder have gotten a bad rap. You probably wish you were neater and more organized. I know this because I conducted a survey with Eric Abrahamson, my co-author for A Perfect Mess. And the results make it clear that most Americans tend to consider themselves woefully messy and disorganized, and that even holds for the highly successful. Two-thirds of respondents said they feel guilt or shame over how messy or disorganized they are. Fifty-nine percent say they think "somewhat less" or "the worst" of messy people. Two-thirds say they would be more successful if they were neater and more organized, and 60 percent report feeling pressure to be neat at work. Fully 88 percent say their organizations are either not organized enough or organized the wrong way. Only 7 percent thought there was even a possibility that their companies were "overorganized."

But are messiness and disorganization really such terrible things? Abrahamson and I don't think so. The business world--indeed, the whole world--is much too biased toward neatness and order and overlooks the benefits of at least a modest level of messiness and disorganization. In contradiction to a hundred years of personal productivity and management wisdom, being somewhat disordered can be quite smart. And this holds true not just for personal neatness and organization but for structuring companies and designing work processes. And it applies to offices and homes and even to science and art and the rest of society.

Let's take a simple example: the messy desk. Most of us have one, according to the survey, and if you think about it, it probably works quite well. Researchers who have taken the trouble to study desk neatness, like Microsoft senior researchers Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper, generally find that messy desks do a good job of reflecting the way people work--and thus can be more productive than a neat desk. No wonder. To keep a desk free of clutter, you've got to get everything that comes across your desk filed away or else processed and shipped to someone else's desk. That may sound gloriously efficient, but it's really anything but. For one thing, it takes time to get everything promptly filed or processed, and that's time you could have spent making decisions or talking to customers. In other words, there's a cost to neatness, one that people tend to ignore. In addition, by trying to deal with everything on your desk, you're spending time with papers that could be safely ignored for a while--that's bad prioritization. And, of course, if you want to retrieve a document, you've got to hunt it down in filing cabinets that often seem to eat important papers.

With a messy desk, on the other hand, you'll end up with piles of clutter in which the more important, more urgent work naturally tends to end up close by and near the top, while the safely ignorable stuff gets buried near the back. You'll sometimes have to hunt through a pile to find a document, but you'll probably have a good idea where to look. That would explain why people who claim to have "very neat" desks in our survey report spending 36 percent more time looking for things than people who say they have "fairly messy" desks. Not only will work be at hand and be easier to find with a messy desk, and not only will you avoid the time cost of having to file and process, but you'll also get the special benefits of serendipity--that is, you'll occasionally stumble onto a useful document that if filed would have remained hidden forever and perhaps even make an inspired connection between two seemingly unrelated documents that end up together. (A National Institutes of Health scientist named Leon Heppel made such a connection while excavating through his spectacularly messy desk in the 1950s, and it led to a Nobel Prize for a colleague.) That may be why, according to a survey conducted by professional staffing firm Ajilon Office, office messiness tends to increase sharply with increased education, salary, and experience. Yet there are still many companies in the U.S., including General Motors and UPS, where you can get reprimanded for having a messy desk.

Earlier this year I sat in on a talk given by the celebrity get-organized guru Julie Morgenstern to a standing-room-only crowd of successful entrepreneurs. Morgenstern, a best-selling author, dispensed the sort of straightforward personal productivity advice that has made her a superstar of putting things in order. The audience frantically took notes like Ivy League hopefuls at an SAT prep course as she dispensed such nuggets of wisdom as: Don't check your e-mail in the morning because it distracts you from more important tasks; schedule a single slot of time each day for making and taking phone calls so they don't interrupt you the rest of the day; leave a half-hour early every day as a way of forcing yourself to focus on getting important tasks done before you leave.

Consider all forms of mess. Mix things up, deschedule, unplan, be inconsistent, pile up, blur categories, make noise, bounce around, get distracted, invite confusion.

That all has the ring of clever advice. But think about it. What will happen if you start ignoring genuinely critical e-mails that arrive first thing in the morning? And if cutting out the last half-hour of your day makes you more productive, why not cut out the last two hours and be really productive? And if businesspeople start restricting their phone work to one time slot, then won't all the people you call during your time slot either not be taking calls because it's not their phone time or else be on the phone to someone else? In fact, virtually all of the advice from get-organized gurus tends to fall apart on close inspection. But we're all so desperate to add order to our lives that we eat it up without questioning whether it really makes sense.

What applies to desks applies everywhere in business. And for a simple reason: When things are carefully arranged and kept in their "proper" time and place and done in precisely the "right" way every time, you lock out some highly useful qualities--such as improvisation, adaptability, and serendipity. And that's true whether you're talking about your desk, an organizational chart, corporate policies, approaches to design, or servicing customers. What's more, if you push for neatness and order, you're going to end up sinking a lot of time and effort into maintaining it. That's just physics: According to the basic laws of thermodynamics, every system wastes energy and leaves the universe a little more random, no matter how much that system accomplishes. Another way of stating this is that to get things done, you have to make a mess--and, in fact, the more you accomplish, the bigger the mess created around you will be. If you structure your world to be ultra neat and ordered, then you are either getting little done or you are expending large amounts of energy unnecessarily to stamp out messiness. Biologists have found that the brain is loaded with random "noise" and, in fact, depends on it. Astronomers, musicians, and electrical engineers have long known there are useful applications of disorder. And think about which political movements were proudly associated with achieving the highest levels of order, discipline, uniformity, and neatness.

How do you actually apply all of this to running a company? For starters, consider these aspects of the business when looking for a way to add useful disorder.

Managing people: Most companies have fairly set, consistent ideas about how people should be hired and how they should get their jobs done. Messier managers, in contrast, often prefer to disrupt established systems. Burt Rutan, the highly successful aerospace maverick (and Inc.'s 2004 Entrepreneur of the Year) whose company, Scaled Composites, built the first private vehicle to bring a human into space, likes to hire people who have no experience in what they'll be doing for the company and then encourage them to find fault with everything the company does. Technical managers at software company Novell (NASDAQ:NOVL) had long clung to rigid, highly structured routines for developing software--until top management acquired a tiny off-the-wall software company called Ximian and started inviting Ximian's young former-hacker CTO to roam the buttoned-down headquarters, evangelizing about the benefits of loosening control over projects and enlisting the help of outside programmers via the Web. The change reversed a long sales slide.

Operations: It seems hard to argue with the idea that businesses should strive to standardize best practices and provide customers with a consistent, predictable experience. And yet some companies thrive on doing precisely the opposite--that is, on continually improvising and throwing customers curve balls. At a time when preschools have been adopting increasingly detailed and rigid curricula to ensure students would get a head start on preparing for standardized testing in elementary schools, Gail Leftin founded the Little Red Wagon preschools around the notion that teachers should never have a lesson plan. Instead, her teachers build the curriculum on the fly, around whatever the kids express interest in day to day. Today, Leftin is among that minority of preschool operators who have to turn parents away, and she doesn't even advertise. Edward Zaki couldn't decide what sort of restaurant he wanted to open in Montreal, so he decided not to decide. His two successful restaurants, Confusion and Vertige, mix and match various styles of décor and types of cuisine, wreaking delightful havoc with ingredients via dishes such as burnt whole wheat encased fish and cheese-stuffed grapes in ham and even serving multicourse meals in reverse order.

Strategic planning: Smart entrepreneurs put considerable effort into foreseeing trends and figuring out how to shape the company to take advantage of those trends. Or do they? It might sound nuts to suggest that companies shouldn't take the trouble to figure out what their strategies will be over the next few years, but studies suggest that strategic planning is not only a waste of time, it's actually at least as likely to hurt as help. According to University of Oregon College of Business professor William Starbuck, who has studied the question at length, strategic planning essentially requires casting a blind eye to certain key facts: The world is an unpredictable place (war, housing busts, gas price hikes, the rise of new technologies), markets are complex, competitors will counter your every move, and most managers fail to recognize the ways in which their own organizations deviate from their neat conceptions.

This happens in part because subordinates who are closer to the messy truth tend to echo their bosses' opinions rather than challenging them. Sure enough, when Starbuck looked at the performance of companies that emphasized strategic planning, he found they didn't do any better on average than companies that did less planning. Instead of fretting over strategic plans that simply set companies up to be taken by surprise, Starbuck concludes, businesses would do better to allow room for chaos and surprise in their long-range plans. Operating like this, of course, is highly messy--which is why most managers shrink from the idea.

Personal productivity: Even if you're not aware of it, you're probably putting pressure on yourself and your employees to adhere to conventional notions of daily work order, including having neat work areas, being punctual, and focusing on certain tasks. Good thing you weren't Alexander Fleming's boss. When Fleming strolled into his impressively cluttered lab after a vacation, he noticed a ragged circle of mold had formed on one of the many petri dish bacterial cultures he had left lying around. He impulsively ran some tests on it--thereby discovering penicillin. Years later, as a group of scientists took Fleming on a tour of their spotless and well-organized lab, one of them wondered aloud what amazing discoveries Fleming might have made in this sort of facility. "Not penicillin," replied Fleming.

You might even want to push employees to be messier. When Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) 's legendary chief software architect Ray Ozzie observed that the company's software developers were relying too heavily on scheduled meetings to stay in sync and swap ideas, he pushed for changes in the physical workspaces "to naturally catalyze ad hoc face time," as he put it in one memo. In other words, just getting people to bump into each other randomly can make a difference.

I can't tell you what the best way to introduce messiness and disorder into your company might be--that would be like telling you the best way to have a messy desk. But here are a few principles to keep in mind:

Optimize mess: Being neater isn't always better, but being messier isn't always better, either. If your desk is so covered with piles that you don't have a place to work, then you're too messy. If you're missing appointments with key customers, building products with 30 percent defect rates, or renaming your company every three months, then excess order probably isn't your problem. The trick is to find the right level of messiness for you and your company. How? Easy. Be a little messier in some way. If things get better, keep going; if they get worse, neaten up, and try being messy in some other way. Bear in mind that if you're like most people, you're probably a bit too ordered--but nonetheless consider yourself too disorganized. The same applies to your company.

Consider all forms of mess: Mix things up, deschedule, unplan, be inconsistent, pile up, blur categories, make noise, bounce around, get distracted, invite confusion, add in the extraneous, let things leak in, let things leak out, embrace disruption--and do the same for your employees, work processes, and customers. Explore mess in multiple dimensions. You don't have to be messy in all ways. Maybe your office is fine as it is, but your calendar needs loosening up. Or your accounting procedures are sloppy, while your product line is boringly consistent. Figure out which aspects of the business are ripe for messing up--and which may already be a little too disorganized.

Take into account the costs of neatness: Remember, being messier doesn't necessarily have to bring improvement to make sense; sometimes it just has to not make things worse to pay off. That's because it takes resources to maintain neatness and order, and you'll recover those costs when you embrace mess. Similarly, don't exaggerate the cost of messiness. Are there downsides to being messier and less organized? Of course. Employees at the messy company may well miss more deadlines, get distracted by more projects that don't pan out, and have more irrelevant conversations. Some customers will be turned off by the looks of the place or the atmosphere. Yes, there's a cost to these sorts of problems--but it's probably not as big as people tend to assume.

So should you try to turn your company into a big mess of a business like the Book Fair? Probably not. That sort of virtuosic disorder tends to evolve over many years. But there's surely room for at least a little Book Fair in some aspect of the way you run your company. It certainly provides an interesting alternative to pouring resources into being tightly structured, predictably managed, and consistently neat, and to generally aspiring to get your company to run like a Swiss clock.

Think about that tomorrow morning after you've checked your e-mail and in between phone calls.

David H. Freedman, a contributing editor, writes Inc.'s What's Next column. He is the co-author of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder: How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place, which will be published next month by Little, Brown and Co.

Consider all forms of mess: Mix things up, deschedule, unplan, be inconsistent, pile up, blur categories, make noise, bounce around, get distracted, invite confusion, add in the extraneous, let things leak in, let things leak out, embrace disruption--and do the same for your employees, work processes, and customers. Explore mess in multiple dimensions. You don't have to be messy in all ways. Maybe your office is fine as it is, but your calendar needs loosening up. Or your accounting procedures are sloppy, while your product line is boringly consistent. Figure out which aspects of the business are ripe for messing up--and which may already be a little too disorganized.

Take into account the costs of neatness: Remember, being messier doesn't necessarily have to bring improvement to make sense; sometimes it just has to not make things worse to pay off. That's because it takes resources to maintain neatness and order, and you'll recover those costs when you embrace mess. Similarly, don't exaggerate the cost of messiness. Are there downsides to being messier and less organized? Of course. Employees at the messy company may well miss more deadlines, get distracted by more projects that don't pan out, and have more irrelevant conversations. Some customers will be turned off by the looks of the place or the atmosphere. Yes, there's a cost to these sorts of problems--but it's probably not as big as people tend to assume.

So should you try to turn your company into a big mess of a business like the Book Fair? Probably not. That sort of virtuosic disorder tends to evolve over many years. But there's surely room for at least a little Book Fair in some aspect of the way you run your company. It certainly provides an interesting alternative to pouring resources into being tightly structured, predictably managed, and consistently neat, and to generally aspiring to get your company to run like a Swiss clock.

Think about that tomorrow morning after you've checked your e-mail and in between phone calls.

David H. Freedman, a contributing editor, writes Inc.'s What's Next column. He is the co-author of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder: How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place, which will be published next month by Little, Brown and Co.

Consider all forms of mess: Mix things up, deschedule, unplan, be inconsistent, pile up, blur categories, make noise, bounce around, get distracted, invite confusion, add in the extraneous, let things leak in, let things leak out, embrace disruption--and do the same for your employees, work processes, and customers. Explore mess in multiple dimensions. You don't have to be messy in all ways. Maybe your office is fine as it is, but your calendar needs loosening up. Or your accounting procedures are sloppy, while your product line is boringly consistent. Figure out which aspects of the business are ripe for messing up--and which may already be a little too disorganized.

Take into account the costs of neatness: Remember, being messier doesn't necessarily have to bring improvement to make sense; sometimes it just has to not make things worse to pay off. That's because it takes resources to maintain neatness and order, and you'll recover those costs when you embrace mess. Similarly, don't exaggerate the cost of messiness. Are there downsides to being messier and less organized? Of course. Employees at the messy company may well miss more deadlines, get distracted by more projects that don't pan out, and have more irrelevant conversations. Some customers will be turned off by the looks of the place or the atmosphere. Yes, there's a cost to these sorts of problems--but it's probably not as big as people tend to assume.

So should you try to turn your company into a big mess of a business like the Book Fair? Probably not. That sort of virtuosic disorder tends to evolve over many years. But there's surely room for at least a little Book Fair in some aspect of the way you run your company. It certainly provides an interesting alternative to pouring resources into being tightly structured, predictably managed, and consistently neat, and to generally aspiring to get your company to run like a Swiss clock.

Think about that tomorrow morning after you've checked your e-mail and in between phone calls.

David H. Freedman, a contributing editor, writes Inc.'s What's Next column. He is the co-author of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder: How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place, which will be published next month by Little, Brown and Co.

Consider all forms of mess: Mix things up, deschedule, unplan, be inconsistent, pile up, blur categories, make noise, bounce around, get distracted, invite confusion, add in the extraneous, let things leak in, let things leak out, embrace disruption--and do the same for your employees, work processes, and customers. Explore mess in multiple dimensions. You don't have to be messy in all ways. Maybe your office is fine as it is, but your calendar needs loosening up. Or your accounting procedures are sloppy, while your product line is boringly consistent. Figure out which aspects of the business are ripe for messing up--and which may already be a little too disorganized.

Take into account the costs of neatness: Remember, being messier doesn't necessarily have to bring improvement to make sense; sometimes it just has to not make things worse to pay off. That's because it takes resources to maintain neatness and order, and you'll recover those costs when you embrace mess. Similarly, don't exaggerate the cost of messiness. Are there downsides to being messier and less organized? Of course. Employees at the messy company may well miss more deadlines, get distracted by more projects that don't pan out, and have more irrelevant conversations. Some customers will be turned off by the looks of the place or the atmosphere. Yes, there's a cost to these sorts of problems--but it's probably not as big as people tend to assume.

So should you try to turn your company into a big mess of a business like the Book Fair? Probably not. That sort of virtuosic disorder tends to evolve over many years. But there's surely room for at least a little Book Fair in some aspect of the way you run your company. It certainly provides an interesting alternative to pouring resources into being tightly structured, predictably managed, and consistently neat, and to generally aspiring to get your company to run like a Swiss clock.

Think about that tomorrow morning after you've checked your e-mail and in between phone calls.

David H. Freedman, a contributing editor, writes Inc.'s What's Next column. He is the co-author of A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder: How Crammed Closets, Cluttered Offices, and On-the-Fly Planning Make the World a Better Place, which will be published next month by Little, Brown and Co.

IMAGE: Illustration by Jason Lee
Last updated: Dec 1, 2006

DAVID H. FREEDMAN

A Boston-based contributing editor, Freedman is the co-author of A Perfect Mess, which examines the useful role of disorder in daily life, business, and science.




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