Wednesday, June 3, 2015


There is good mess and bad mess, creative mess, debatable mess and scary mess. There is mess that is counter productive and mess that saves lives. In a book called A Perfect Mess that I reviewed (with some glee) a while ago, Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman questioned everything about the messes that we live with and sometimes try to control, from kitchen cupboards tottering with tins to corporations, cities, airlines and nuclear power plants.

To some people, the idea that mess might be interesting, helpful or constructive is maddening. They fret if linen in the closet is not stacked properly. They yell at children to tidy their rooms. They circulate memos demanding that office desks be cleared of clutter. They write reports, instructions, rules and schedules. They require order.

Abrahamson and Freedman sided with us slobs who don’t go along with this. They suggested that fussy housekeeping made other people uncomfortable. That too much cleanliness can cause allergies in children and breed heartier bugs with a resistance to antibacterial cleansers. What works for bugs works for children, went the theory. Let children develop their own resistance to the bugs and allergens because the world is a dirty, messy place and they might as well get used to it.

Like self-improvement books, this one had an epiphany on practically every page.  Neatness can be limiting, argued the authors as they described how a hospital was organised in response to suggestions from patients; how an architect designed a building but refused to supply blueprints so the builders had to think their way through the job; how Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin because his laboratory was grubby enough to grow mould in a petri dish.

Companies waste resources trying to impose order because they miss opportunities to stumble upon innovations, while their more slap-dash but creative employees become anxious and unproductive. Forward planning is just crystal-gazing; remember how, in 1943, the chairman of IBM declared that the world market for computers would peak at five.

Abrahamson and Freedman made provocative comments about many things, including speed bumps (they cause accidents), voice-menus (inefficient and they make customers ratty), and fancy filing systems (waste of time and money).  Mess, they said, can lead to creative thinking and the magic of serendipity. Painters, writers and musicians couldn’t function without it. Flexibility is more useful for dealing with unexpected situations, and solutions to problems sometimes come out of the blue if there isn’t a rule book to get in the way.

The authors’ message was that life is hopelessly messy so why waste time trying to clear it up? Relax and everyone would be more productive and happier – except of course for the neat-freaks.

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