A Perfect Mess
“If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind…
“…then is an empty desk a sign?” -Einstein
In Manhattan on Broadway, there used to sit two magazine stores across the street from each other. One, a chain, put their Cosmopolitan magazine snugly and neatly next to their Fortunes. They had a powerful inventory system and training series that taught their employees how to make the most of their time with the customer. The other, owned by old Mr. Essam, haphazardly stocked his magazines without the aid of computer inventory or programs. He and his assistant operated from memory and straightened as best they could whenever they could. Can you guess which one survived?
Mr. Essam, of course.
This story is from Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman‘s smart and brilliant book, A Perfect Mess. They explain how mess makes the world a better place and why Mr. Essam is still in business. One reason was his lack of overhead – no profit eating computer system telling him what to do. The other, they explain, is mess.
I once worked with a young, startup company that had a beautiful business plan, great mission, clear values, neat goals. After they worked tirelessly for months to get the company off the ground, it sank like the Titanic. My diagnosis: they were too neat.
Though there’s something to be said about neatness, there’s a hidden benefit to mess, says Abrahamson and Freedman: flexibility.
Messy systems adapt and change more quickly, more dramatically, in a wider variety of ways, and with less effort. Neat systems tend to be more rigid and slower to respond to changing demands, unexpected events, and new information. – A Perfect Mess, page 77-78
Think about the messy improvisation of a jazz ensemble, or the chaotic and sometimes drunk-looking dance of a boxer. They aren’t at a loss; they are ready for change, whether in rhythm or response.
One of the biggest disasters an organization can commit with their mission statement is making it too neat and clean. A mission statement that does not make room for failure or change is, in itself, a failure. It lacks the flexibility life requires. Stuff happens. We have to adapt.
But think outside of work for a moment.
- What about your household rules like, “Always share, with everybody.”
- What about the unspoken family rules like, “We don’t fight.”
- What about relationship rules like, “I have to have a positive disposition, even when we fight.”
These rules might work for some or most things, but life is messy. Stuff happens. We have to adapt.
Teams – whether they are work teams or families – require allowances for mess. NOTE: they don’t require the mess to become a disaster! They do, however, have to expect the mess. Teams that don’t expect mess tend to get a little obsessive-compulsive: so obsessed in cleaning up each and every spill that they are compelled to ignore their primary objective.
So when setting goals for work, or for summer diet/exercise, or for your marriage, or for your kids/parents, focus on two things:
- What is my primary objective here?
- Am I willing to forgive myself when I mess up/Am I expecting to encounter mess?
Expect a little mess. Don’t let your obsession to have a perfect and neat mission get in the way of reaching your goals. Smile when messes happens. They are just reminding you that you are human!