The magic in mess

In this volatile business world, can a little messiness help spur creativity ?


Most people believe that a messy workstation results in low productivity. Photo: iStockphoto
Most people believe that a messy workstation results in low productivity. Photo: iStockphoto

A tidy room, a neatly packed bag and a clean desk—we’re often reminded that these are signs of a calm and organized mind. Such is the charm of cleanliness that it has been placed right next to godliness.

But British economist and journalist Tim Harford begs to differ. “Sometimes, mess is better than order and precision,” he says in an email interview. By breaking the rigidity of rules, we expose ourselves to unexpected twists and turns which push us to come up with creative, innovative and improvised ideas and answers, says Harford, who makes a compelling case for the magic of messiness in his new book Messy: How To Be Creative And Resilient In A Tidy-Minded World. He does so by using research in neuroscience and social science, and the real-life examples of Steve Jobs and David Bowie—all of whom “embraced messiness and soared in their lives”.

“Messiness lies at the core of how we innovate, how we achieve, how we reach each other, how we succeed,” Harford believes.

That, of course, doesn’t mean that places like the kitchen, the living room, hospitals, libraries and bookshops should not be clean and organized. The perfect mess is one that helps you creatively in the way of productivity. “It will be different for everyone. The problem is that we over-prepare and over-organize in situations where a little mess can do,” says Harford, whose “messy” desk is piled high with books and papers. 

Most people believe that a messy workstation results in low productivity. This is not the case, says US-based Todd Brodie, a global human resource coach, leadership development expert and strategic business analyst, who was in Delhi recently. “As I look around my office, many would believe that given its ‘messy’ or ‘cluttered’ state, I would not be able to function. The ‘non-messy’ fear that allowing themselves to be messy shows them as not being in control and somehow less of a person or leader. Being messy is a good approach to allow for creativity to flow as well as being an effective leader.”

Marie Kondo, the queen of decluttering, herself has warned against the tidiness temptation, saying organizing one’s possessions in clever storage solutions is a “booby trap”. “I can honestly declare that storage methods do not solve the problem of how to get rid of clutter. In the end, they are only a superficial answer,” she wrote in her 2011 book, The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art Of Decluttering And Organizing.

Organized chaos

Let’s take the example of the office desk. We spend much of our time archiving mails and moving them into folders (Personal, Work, Travel), labelling files and keeping our books and other important papers to ensure our desk is the prime example of the Japanese 5S (Seiri, sort; Seiton, set in order; Seiso, shine; Seiketsu, standardize; Shitsuke, sustain) concept of workplace organization. This is a “colossal waste of time and energy which could have been used fruitfully for generating ideas, thoughts and perspectives. A messy desk is full of recent patterns of working—the report you were working on, the letter that needs a reply. It helps people quickly orient themselves after arriving at office. A tidy desk, on the other hand, conveys no information barring being bolstered with to-do lists,” says Harford.

A 2001 study by US research and development company AT&T Labs, which looked at how a group of office workers dealt with their paperwork, found that “filers” had large cabinets full of neatly stacked paper that they never used, while the “pilers” kept documents on their desks for a while and dumped them in the dustbin when they were of no use. The study was published in the journal ACM Transactions On Computer-Human Interaction. A decade later, a study presented at the Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Canada found that it takes a minute to find an email in neatly labelled folders, and only 17 seconds if you scroll through the inbox using the search function.

New approach

This, of course, doesn’t mean that one should work in a chaotic environment. Hemendra Varma, director of Mumbai-based The 5s Institute, which works towards imparting training and implementation assistance in the Japanese method at organizations and institutions, says the idea is not to make every workstation a hospital—“although that wouldn’t hurt either”—but to be organized even in your messiness. “It is not important to be messy to be creative, but you definitely can be creative and be messy. There’s nothing wrong in mess, till the time you are in control of it,” says Varma. 

The creative process is indeed messy, says Pradnya Parasher, an executive coach and founder-chief executive of Mumbai-based ThreeFish Consulting. Messy is all about not being perfect, it is about being a work-in-progress, she says. “In the Big 5 (openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness and neuroticism) personality model, ‘messy’ and ‘creative’ are determined by two different aspects of personality. A more conscientious, detail-oriented person will be lot less messy, i.e. will value order, planning and be less tolerant of chaos,” says Parasher. This can be seen more commonly in design firms and start-ups.

Does this mean the “messy” approach cannot be extended to companies in the non-creative field? “Of course, it can be. The world is changing quite rapidly, and innovation is required in all aspects of work. Creative, non-creative leaders, non-leaders, all can benefit from lack of orderly thought. However, messy does not equate to lack of control or direction. A messy individual takes a more interesting ride to get to the destination, excited at both reaching it and the journey along the way,” says Brodie.

As Harford says, messiness has little to do with the physical, it’s more psychical. “It is being seen as tolerance of chaos and ambiguity, willingness to experiment, and openness to try new things,” says Parasher.

Brodie argues that leaders who engage in a more collaborative approach are often not tidy or orderly. “They are more engaging and allow their own as well as others’ creativity to soar. If a leader’s primary focus is on to-do lists and follows that to a tee, then they are missing out on the opportunity to explore different perspectives, thoughts, experiences,” he says. 

The key: You need the right amount of mess that keeps your brain engaged, not so much that you lose your final report to the shredding machine, says Parasher. 

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