I finished reading A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman. I was hoping that this book would provide a mechanism for thinking through and assessing the cost of ‘neatness’ vs. the benefits of order. Instead, this turned out to be more of a book discussing mess and it’s benefits in an anecdotal manner. In addition, the book was a mess (not written with a lot of direction) more of a random shmattering of ideas on the subject.
Nevertheless, it was an interesting book (sort of a “Tipping Point” on the benefits of some disorder, but without Malcolm Gladwell) . Here are some of the points that I think are interesting to consider:
- The abuse of ordering systems
Because you can create systems that supposedly help preserve time in the future, you simultaneously can miss on the things that are most important to be done. In other words, you spend time on things that aren’t important rather than being able to focus on the things that are important to make sure they get done. For instance, if you have a process each document only once type ordering policy, you end up ordering documents or spending time with documents that are not important. Alternately, people can abuse these systems by putting documents that they want reviewed into the hands of someone that they know will force themselves to look at it. Anyway, the clear flipside to this is that you end up letting important things slip through the cracks (this is where I thought they didn’t do a good job – by presenting the cost of disorder). The best system is one which can make sure that important things don’t slip through the cracks. Anyway, the basic point here is that busy and effective are two different things. Busy organizing does not mean you are effective.
- Benefits of mess are underplayed
By ordering things in various ways, you obfuscate other useful information. For instance, if I organize my CD’s by Artist, I no longer have them ordered by topic.
- Society overemphasizes orderliness
They had an example where during the Michael Jackson trial they showed video tape of how messy his home was as a sign that something foul must have taken place (even though there was much more damning evidence). Most people feel bad for having something that looks disorderly and people look down on those who appear messy. Much of the motivation for getting ordered is an emotional reason. There is a freedom for feeling ordered (in control of your environment). Though I wonder if in some ways, this is only an illusion. Sure the small stuff doesn’t get past you, but you also don’t get as much of the big stuff needed. Unfortunately, the book does not address a mechanism for making the tradeoff between these two though it clearly suggests that either extreme is not the most optimal.
Ultimately, this book paints the direction for how messiness (something which appears disordered) is beneficial, it does not at all help draw the deliniation between how to make the balance between orderliness and messiness appropriate. I thought this book talked around the subject rather than really get at helping people making the appropriate tradeoffs. Mostly it railed against the push toward complete “order” and in that regard it was successful.
I picked up another book “Everything is Miscellaneous” that takes another perspective on this subject that is great. I’ll be posting more on this soon.