The book aims to demonstrate that the costs of getting and staying organized can exceed the benefits, mostly through the ongoing efforts required to maintain order, while also outlining the potential benefits of some level of mess. While not advocating complete chaos, the authors do advocate allowing some mess to add character and sense to ones world. The book includes lengthy interviews and case studies, which both reinforce the lessons and take away from the flow of the book, making it much longer than it needs to be (maybe they didn’t need a professional organizer, a better editor was likely called for here).
For a book advocating mess, there is considerable and worthy time spent on the classification of mess (12 different types, including clutter, mixture, noise and distortion) and the corresponding classifications of neatness, as well as the measures of mess (width, depth, intensity and scale). More interesting are the listed benefits of mess, based on several illuminating examples. Benefits include flexibility (messy systems can adapt to change quickly and effectively whereas organized systems are constrained by the very rules that keep them organized), invention (messy systems can allow unrelated items to align in unusual and inspiring ways that an organized system would never permit), and efficiency (messy systems are less costly than organized ones).
Likely the best example from the book is the deck of cards. Consider one deck kept in order, another shuffled. With each one, find the queen of hearts. Yes, with the ordered one, it would likely be quicker than than with the shuffled one. However, the work involved in making and then keeping the deck in order quickly exceeds the time spent looking for the desired card in the shuffled deck. In other words, the work of maintaining order is sometimes not worth it.
Some other take-aways for me:
- “…companies that did a lot of strategic planning performed, on average, no better than companies that did less strategic planning.” This makes sense to me, as the number of variables and assumptions required in long term strategic planning significantly outnumber the certainties; the unknowns are greater than the knowns, meaning plans can either never be concrete or are likely doomed to failure. As a former Head of Strategic Planning, I know of what I speak. A related concept covered is the benefit of some purposeful procrastination – put off planning and executing until it is most timely to do so, otherwise you can end up planning and doing more than once, a most inefficient approach (see also https://hbr.org/2014/08/the-irresistible-allure-of-pre-crastination/ and Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, by Frank Portnoy http://www.amazon.ca/Wait-The-Art-Science-Delay/dp/B00B9ZBSPQ). Indeed, most times the pathway to success and discovery can only truly be seen in retrospect.
- “Our brains evolved to function in a messy world, and sometimes, when we insist on thinking in neat, orderly ways, we’re really holding back our minds from doing what they do best.” The authors provide examples where the introduction of some random element into a situation led to increased creativity (such as adding a random word to brainstorming, or inviting an outsider into a discussion) and more successful problem solving (as with the manager who introduced smaller changes into her own life, such as taking a different route to work, in order to facilitate adopting larger and more significant changes into her leadership style).
- “…in the eighteenth century improvisation was regarded as an integral part of serious music.” A by-product of the globalization of music has been its homogenization. Essentially, Bach and his contemporaries (and most composers who came before) did not meticulously document their compositions for each and every part of the orchestra; rather they allowed for, and in fact required, musicians in all areas to interpret their charts with riffs and improvisation, allowing for greater creativity and the absolute certainty that many of the modern and canonical versions of those works bear little resemblance to what their creators had in mind. The fact that today’s Goldberg Variations will sound the same from Australia to Zurich may be a triumph of organization over mess, but the consequence is the tragic loss of the creativity and ephemeral beauty of such musical creations as they were originally intended.