Why messy is good

Are you messy?

I am very messy. So any book that suggests that messy is good, I am in. “Hence Messy: How to Be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World”

Embrace the mess

The argument of this book is that we often succumb to the temptation of a tidy-minded approach when we would be better served by embracing a degree of mess. Order is not necessarily a good thing. Order creates its own dynamic which is not necessarily a good thing. Particularly when computers and algorithms count on an amount of order. You don’t want Big Brother making a mistake in the way you are classified on some of the darker databases.

Control is an illusion

Small shocks are good. As Taleb explained in “Antifragile”. Order can be a filter bubble all on its own. Order stifles creativity. Order kills serendipity. Tidy offices are not good for morale. Building 20 in MIT is referenced. A very messy building, full of serendipity, unexpected meetings and an eclectic mix of disciplines.
The best researchers are messy. They switch topics regularly. The best creatives are messy.

Mess is good for creativity

Two leading creativity researchers, Howard Gruber and Sara Davis, have argued that the tendency to work on multiple projects is so common among the most creative people that it should be regarded as standard practice. Messy enough for people to feel comfortable designing their workplace they want it. Serendipity and autonomy to change and improvise. A perfect mix for innovation.

Getting into the flow

They make some very good points about mastery and improvisation. They are not mutual exclusive. In fact, you need mastery before you can improvise (although “The rookie advantage” would argue otherwise).
Losing control. Playing jazz. Getting in the flow. It is all good. Now also applied to organisational structures, such as Zappos, who created a holacracy. A very messy organisational structure. “Reinventing organisations” would suggest that this type of organisations are fundamental to future success.

Be a jungle

Peter Hinssen in “The day after tomorrow” agrees. To be innovative, you need an organisation that resembles a jungle, not a plantation. In nature, mess often indicates health – and not only in the forest.

Confusion is a strategy

Opportunities arise from confusion and try to generate more opportunities by creating more confusion. That was Rommel’s approach to war. In war, as in any other competitive situation, you win by beating your opponent. After all, you do need to play perfectly to win; he just needs to ensure that his opponent plays worse. That thinking created Amazon, but also the SAS. If you can disorient your opponent, forcing him to stop and figure out what was going on, you gain an advantage. And if you can do this relentlessly, your opponent would be almost paralysed with confusion. Amazon did that to Toys”R”Us. Donald Trump is doing it to everybody.

Governments don’t like messy

They continue to be motivated by the idea that the better they comprehend the world, the better they will be able to control and exploit it. They have been joined by large corporations, which also see the value in quantifying and classifying our world. The trouble is that when we start quantifying and measuring everything, we soon begin to change the world to fit the way we measure it. Be careful what you measure.

Be careful what you measure

Blair’s waiting-time target nudged family doctors into refusing routine appointments. Scientific forestry reduced biodiversity and hurt the welfare of local peasants. Virginia Apgar’s newborn score tempted obstetricians to perform C-sections. Report cards encouraged cardiac surgeons to carry out heart bypasses on patients who didn’t need them. The world tends to change faster than bureaucracies can keep up, which causes problems for any organisation that has lashed itself to an unbending framework of performance measures.

Focus on guiding principles

The authors suggest we should work on guiding principles or simple heuristics. Do you think Basel II and III are working in keeping the banks in check? Guiding principle here is ‘Beware indebted banks.’ Because the minute we impose rules we try to game them. VW another case in point. Messy, random and unexpected tests would have prevented that.

Automation might not be as good as we think

Automation is another case in point. The better the automatic systems, the more out-of-practice human operators will be, and the more unusual will be the situations they face, requiring a particularly skilful human response. The quote ‘Digital devices tune out small errors while creating opportunities for large errors.’

We tend to assume that the technology knows what it’s doing. But the computers are often unaccountable. Whatever errors or preconceptions have been programmed into the algorithm from the start, it is safe from scrutiny: those errors and preconceptions will be hard to challenge.

We also have this thing called automation bias. People get passive and less vigilant when algorithms make the decisions. They stop working to get better. Computer make us dumb? That could be from “Digital versus human”.

Messy is good

Messy is good for traffic management (Oudehaske, Holland is featured as e case study). Messy is good for your health. Read “The hidden half of nature”. Messy is good for economies. Messy is good for organisations. Messy is good for urban planning. Messy is good for universities. Messy is good for playgrounds. Messy is good for kids.
If you try to control a complex system, suppressing or tidying away the parts that seem unimportant, you are likely to discover that those parts turn out to be very important indeed.


We increasingly understanding that mess makes natural systems more healthy and resilient, then could the same be true for artificial systems, such as the neighbourhoods, cities and countries where we live?

Planning should be messy

Which means that planning needs to be messy too. As Bezos liked to say if you are planning more than twenty minutes in this environment, you are wasting your time. Not only are we are often too busy to get organised, but if we focused on practical action, we wouldn’t need to get organised.

A messy desk makes sense

Here is a simple one (and vindication for messy desks). There’s a natural tendency towards a very pragmatic system of organisation based simply on the fact that the useful stuff keeps on getting picked up and left on the top of the pile. Because every time you pull a document out, you replace it on the top of the pile. Unused documents gradually settle at the bottom. After a while throw away what is at the bottom. Repeat.Which is why sneaking in and tidy everything up by somebody that is not messy, is a ruinous act of vandalism (you know who you are).

Not being messy is a waste of time

Organising e-mails is a waste of time. Rigid daily planning is a waste of time (they tested it). A plan that is too specific will soon lie in tatters. Daily plans are tidy, but life is messy.

Messy is good.

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