Embrace your mess: Q&A with Eric Abrahamson

In his new book, Eric Abrahamson lambastes our profit-devouring, time-wasting obsession with order and revels in having achieved an optimal state of messiness.
February 27, 2006 | Event Highlights
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You’re an expert in the management of organizations. But in A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder, you argue that we should worry less about having an organized office, keeping a schedule or following plans.

Maintaining order and carrying out a plan whatever the consequences speaks of a certain rigidity. That might be fine in a stable world, but in our world, you need to be able to drop plans and pick up new ones, and this is true of both individuals and organizations. Sometimes strategic plans put blinders on people, and they are so busy trying to execute their plans that they don’t see that something important has emerged — like automakers that are so busy putting out gas guzzlers that they completely miss fuel-efficient cars.

People talk a lot about the benefits of organization and tidiness, but they very infrequently think about the costs. Businesses and individuals hire professional organizers who can run from $3,000 to $10,000 for a session, and it’s not clear this has any lasting effect. There’s a financial cost in setting up and maintaining an organizational system. There’s also an opportunity cost to all of this neatness. Say you have a burning project to finish. Your time becomes very valuable, and you shouldn’t sacrifice it for organizing your desk — but many of us have the urge to do exactly that. Two-thirds of the respondents to one of our surveys said they were embarrassed about their level of messiness. But to what extent is that warranted? It pays when you have a rush of work to let the mess go.

If there are costs to organization, are there benefits to disorder?

It may seem contradictory, but a degree of messiness can improve efficiency. If you’ve let 10 things pile up on your desk, chances are that the most important items have found their way to the top. And by juxtaposing things that would have been separated in an orderly system, messiness can inspire creativity. When you’re working on a report, and you keep a number of papers scattered over your desk, you’ll be able to see all of the relationships between them and new ways of combining them. This applies to businesses, too. Firms that put individuals who work in different capacities on the same floor, rather than keeping every person who serves the same function together, get much more interaction and innovation. Think of New York City — it’s a place that brings people of many nationalities and ethnicities together, and this jumble is a tremendous source of creativity.

There’s also a power benefit of mess, a less savory aspect but one that some individuals have clearly mastered. If you create considerable disorder in your office, you’re the only one who knows where everything is and you are therefore indispensable to your organization. This, of course, benefits you, not necessarily your firm. This relationship between mess and power is also true for organizations. Al-Qaeda, for instance, is such a challenge because it is a messy organization, not a traditional hierarchy where eliminating the top ranks would leave it headless.

That’s one extreme. Looking at disorder from a purely aesthetic standpoint, we should recognize that it can be a source of beauty. Think of a Jackson Pollock painting or a Frank Gehry building that appears haphazard but is extremely beautiful. A set of rowhouses might be perfectly orderly but devoid of feeling or meaning. A person’s home can be too neat and lack personality.

Who are your favorite mess-makers in history?

Albert Einstein is the poster child for messiness. As he once said, “If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what then is an empty desk?” Then there’s Arnold Schwarzenegger, who refused to keep a schedule when he was running for governor of California. He was able to spend as little or as much time with people as he needed because he kept flexibility in his day.

Scientists talk about the “principle of limited sloppiness.” A lot of big discoveries have happened when one entity has slipped into a controlled condition and created something unexpected. Penicillin is the most famous example: if Alexander Fleming’s laboratory been completely clean, mold wouldn’t have gotten in and penicillin wouldn’t have been discovered. Too much sloppiness, and you won’t know what caused the discovery. But a little bit of sloppiness can make systems more responsive to their environments, and you discover something that you didn’t even think of discovering.

Sounds like there’s a strong link between scientists and messiness. Have researchers come up with a theory for why there are advantages to messiness?

It’s amazing that there are tons of papers on the consequences of order, but we know very little about consequences of disorder or messiness. There’s definitely a need for more research on how disorder affects systems, whether the system is a desk, an organization or a government. We live in a capitalist economy that generates a tremendous amount of stuff and things to do with your time. And we’re all very much overwhelmed by the amount of stuff, cognitive and physical, that assaults us.

In my research, I’ve done a series of computer simulations of messiness. In the simulations, you work, and this generates mess, which slows you down. You can either stop working and clean up or keep working and generate more mess. A simple simulation like that shows that the fastest way to complete the task is not perfect order but a moderate level of messiness.

How’s the state of your office these days?

I have a cyclical mess. When I’m teaching or working on a paper, my office can get very messy. There are stacks of paper and books on every surface, and the books that are on bookshelves aren’t organized to type-A standards. It’s been a while since I’ve cleaned my whiteboard. And I have a two-foot-tall can of Tang in the corner, which I’ve had since I worked for a company on a project 12 years ago. I’d say I’m optimally messy. When things slow down, I’ll tidy up. But I’m in no hurry.

Read More

Abrahamson, Eric, and David Freedman. A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006.

Eric Abrahamson is professor of management and a faculty leader of the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School.

Eric Abrahamson

Professor Abrahamson studies the creation, spread, use and rejection of innovative techniques for managing organizations and their employees. He is best known for his work on fads and fashions in management techniques. He is also an expert on the management of organizational change. He has explored the topic of change management in Change Without Pain: How Managers Can Overcome Initiative Overload, Organizational Chaos...

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