A Method to the Mess

Messy Desk

My desk is a mess. I don’t mean at this moment in time, I’m making a general statement. My desk is a mess 90+% of the time. I have quit apologizing for the way it looks because frankly, after all these years, it seems unlikely that I’m going to change my way of functioning. While many areas of my life are neat and tidy, I think my desk is probably a reflection of how my brain works best — nestled between fluid piles of information that I can adapt and respond to at a moment’s notice. You’d be amazed at the opportunities for innovation that surround me every day as I sit at my desk . . .

Because here’s the thing . . . innovation is messy . . . and I happen to believe that fostering a culture of innovation is part of a leader’s job. Think about it. No matter how many detailed, well-thought-out plans you may put together related to a new opportunity (and we put together a lot!), it’s never going to go exactly as you planned. Even the military — which I consider to be very planful and orderly — has something known as “commander’s intent” to let personnel know what success looks like, so when things don’t go as planned they can find alternate routes to achieve the end goal. Commander’s intent is a clear acknowledgement that things get messy, and leaders need to have a comfort level maneuvering through unexpected detours and roadblocks if they hope to have a successful outcome.

Admittedly, every organization beyond a small start-up also needs individuals who ensure that systems and processes are implemented . . . there a many people in our organization with desktops that don’t have a paper clip out of place. I value and admire these people, I just don’t happen to be one of them. My assistant is, bless her soul, which frees me to build a culture of innovation with the confidence that our infrastructure remains solid.

Maybe you can be a role model for the messiness of exploring unique possibilities and still have a pristine desktop. Good for you! (You were probably one of those kids who could pat their head and rub their tummy at the same time, too.) My point is, the nice neat rules and processes that got us to this point are not likely to spur the breakthrough thinking that will be needed to prepare for and respond to a totally new set of variables. And as a leader, part of your job is to create an environment where it is safe to try new things, change course, and if necessary start again to reach the desired end goal.

One final point for the tidy types out there . . . a messy desk is not necessarily the same as a disorganized one. You would be amazed at how quickly I can find a specific document buried in one of my piles. I can often get my hands on it more quickly than if it was neatly filed away. In the same way, while you’re in the midst of it, innovation may sometimes look like a bunch of disconnected piles of activity. It’s only when you take the long view that you realize, there really was a method to the mess.

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