I have just finished reading A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freeman. I have a feeling that this is a marmite book. Some people (like me) will love it and others will hate it. I can even predict who will hate it; the people whom the book refers to as the ‘neat police’ — the people who insist on clean desk policies and colour-coded filing systems.
This book pleads the case for the potential benefits of disorder. It also highlights the hidden costs of an over-emphasis on neatness, from the expense of maintaining rigid categorisation systems to the dangers to health of obsessive cleanliness. It provides much needed support for those of us who are ‘differently-organised’ as we attempt to fend off those who seem intent on decluttering our lives.
The topics range (in a predictably messy way) from office desks to transport systems, from business to science, from education to politics.
The authors make a distinction between disorder and chaos in its scientific meaning. Chaotic systems are actually ordered, but they are unpredictable because of their level of complexity. Disorder is more about randomness.
Abrahamson and Freedman distinguish several different types of mess (and the delightful irony of someone trying to neatly categorise different types of mess is not lost on me!):
- Clutter — elements of a system are scattered from their normally accepted positions
- Mixture — elements are randomly ordered or combined in unexpected ways
- Time spread — tasks or events are loosely scheduled or randomly prioritised
- Improvisation — there is no predetermination of how things should unfold
- Inconsistency — goals and procedures change frequently, sometimes randomly
- Blur — categorisation schemes are loose or vague
- Noise — processes and information are subject to unintended outside influence
- Distraction — focus is allowed to wander between different elements
- Bounce — levels of activity are unpredictable or not related to demands
- Convolution — schemes are not based on straightforward logic
- Inclusion — few filters are in place to restrict the number and type of entities in a system
- Distortion — things are misaligned or deformed in some way that makes them non-standard
This list is likely to cause nightmares for those of a tidy disposition.
The benefits of mess
Whilst disorder may cause significant problems in some situations, the authors highlight some of the potential benefits of different types of mess.
- Flexibility — Messy systems may adapt more quickly than more rigidly ordered systems because they require less re-ordering
- Completeness — Messy systems may include a more diverse array of entities than more restrictive ordered systems
- Resonance — Messy systems may be more open to influence from the environment enabling them to reach harmony more quickly
- Invention — Messy systems allow for unpredictable combinations and the emphasis of otherwise overlooked elements
- Efficiency — Messy systems don’t waste energy on unnecessarily maintaining order and may solve complex problems more quickly than a rigidly systematic approach (e.g. stochastic methods)
- Robustness — Messy systems often suffer less from damage or failure (for example you can still watch a noisy analogue TV signal but a similarly noisy digital signal would be indecipherable)
The authors are not presenting a one-sided argument; they make it clear that there are as many problems with too much disorder as there are with too much order. The point they make is that many systems (especially ones involving humans) operate best with some level of disorder. This is hardly surprising, since we have evolved to survive in a world which naturally tends towards disorder. However, we like to indulge in the mistaken belief that we can control and systematise everything.
While reading this book I began to think about how mess could be used to enhance the guidance/coaching process. Unsurprisingly, I came across a few examples of where it’s already being used.
Part of the sort_it on-line career development tool is a Random Job Generator (in Option Generating), which, suggests randomly chosen occupations at the press of a button. It can be really interesting to use this with a client to see how they react to the suggestions.
Another exercise I use with groups and individuals is an exercise in which I present them with a limited list of (semi-)randomly chosen occupations and ask them to imagine that these are the only options available so they have to choose three that they would consider and three that they would reject. This often leads to some very creative and revealing discussions.
One of the examples of a messy approach given in the book is of the Little Red Wagon pre-school. Here children are just presented with a collection of materials and allowed to play. The teachers then improvise learning based on whatever the child is doing. They don’t have a curriculum which they determine in advance — emerges as the year progresses.
I’ve often wondered why conventional wisdom on training says that you have to have clearly defined learning outcomes before you start. I often find that participants don’t know what they really want to get from a session until they start to engage with the material. Only then can you fully determine their learning needs.
I’m increasingly drawn to sessions in which I provide some material designed to stimulate the participants to discuss a topic (usually something like a case study). I then construct the session by picking up on the themes that emerge. There’s probably a name for this type of approach.
- Can you think of other ways in which mess can help in the career development process?
- Should our information rooms be messier?
- Normally, I envisage career coaching as taking the mess inside the client’s head and helping to bring more structure to it. Do you think it’s a valid part of our job sometimes to mess with our clients’ heads a bit?