Science Says Your Messy Desk May Be Making You More Productive
In 1993, advertising legend Jay Chiat announced his radical plans for the office of the future. His agency, Chiat/Day, was already a paragon of creativity — its legendary campaigns included Apple’s “1984” and “Think Different” campaigns — and its new LA office, designed by Frank Gehry was to be its monument.
The space was engineered to be playful; with decorations that included pieces from fairground rides and a four-story sized set of binoculars. Chiat also banished the traditional office cubicles and desks in favor of public spaces where executives could meet in impromptu places and brainstorm ideas.
It was a disaster. As Tim Harford explains in his book Messy, our desire for engineered spaces — even creative ones — can kill productivity and innovation. At the same time, disorder and disruption can help us to do our very best work. While this defies conventional wisdom, decades of research suggests that a messy desk may very well be a mark of genius.
The Tidiness Temptation
Kyocera, the Japanese technology giant, strictly adheres to the 5S workplace philosophy(Sort, Set in order, Shine, Standardize and Sustain). Employees are discouraged from cluttering up their desks or hanging personal items on the walls. Inspectors routinely patrol to enforce compliance.
This type of uniformity may be great for the factory floor — some believe 5S was originally derived from Henry Ford’s CANDO system (Cleaning up, Arranging, Neatness, Discipline and Ongoing improvement) — where efficiency is the primary goal, but there is ample evidence that it may seriously harm productivity when creativity and problem solving are required.
In 2010, Alexander Haslam and Craig Knight, both researchers at the University of Exeter, set out to understand how office environments affect productivity. They set up four office layouts and asked subjects to perform simple tasks. They found that when workers were able to clutter up the space with personal knickknacks they got 30% more done than in the 5S environment.
Yet the issue goes far beyond a bit of clutter. Harford points to a number of examples, from musicians to software engineers to daily commuters — that suggest that we often produce our best work amidst some kind of disruption. As it turns out, being thrown off our game can actually bring it to a whole new level.
Why Messy Works
To illustrate why disorder can lead to better outcomes Harford offers a simple hill climbing analogy. Imagine if you had to design an algorithm to find the highest point on earth. The simplest way to do it would be to pick a point at random and simply move to the next highest point. With each move, you would go higher and higher until you reached a peak.
Your performance on the task, however, would greatly depend on where you started. You might do better selecting a number of different points, but here again, you would basically be relying on luck. You’d be just as likely to end up in the lowlands of Holland as you would to find yourself in the Himalayas or the Andes.
The best approach would be to combine the two strategies by picking a limited set of random points and then hill climbing. That would allow you to avoid getting stuck in lowlands and still benefit from steady improvement. It wouldn’t guarantee that you would end up on the top of Mount Everest, but it would outperform either strategy alone.
There is evidence that the hybrId strategy produces better results in the real world. In fact, a team of researchers analyzing 17.9 million scientific papers found that the most highly cited work is far more likely to come from a team of experts in one field that borrowed a small piece of insight from another. Injecting a little bit of randomness can work wonders.
The Two Sides Of Diversity
Steve Jobs is renowned for his attention to order and detail. A micromanager of the highest order, he even insisted that the insides of his computers look elegant and streamlined. It was, in part, this meticulous approach that allowed him to make some of the most successful products ever.
Yet when designing workspaces, he did just the opposite. Both Pixar’s office and Apple’s new “spaceship” building feature central atriums where employees are bound to run into people they ordinarily wouldn’t. The legendary Bell Labs was set up with the same idea in mind, almost forcing researchers with widely divergent expertise to cross in the halls.
Once again, there is ample empirical evidence that backs up the this idea. A variety of studies going back decades suggest the diverse teams perform better, even when compared with ones that objectively have more ability. Giving yourself more hills to climb increases the chances that you’ll land on a high peak.
However, research also shows that being exposed to diverse perspectives is challenging and often uncomfortable, giving rise to tension and uncertainty. That’s why the best teams often function as part of a larger small world network, with tight-knit groups connected to and interacting with other tight-knit groups, combining stability with diversity.
Clearly, the most effective work environments have a healthy mix of order and disorder. The strict conformity of 5S workplaces can feel oppressive, but so can the imposed craziness of the Chiat/Day offices. In both cases, our own personal sense of autonomy is violated. More subtle prodding, such as the run-ins catalyzed by Pixar’s atrium seem to get better results.
Still, every workplace has its own tribes and cliques. Marketing teams clash with engineering and sales teams, while everyone chafes under the watchful gaze of finance and admin. We all have an instinctive need to form our own cohesive groups and to protect them from the incursions of outsiders.
However, those tensions can be overcome if diverse and competing tribes share a greater purpose. In a classic study done back in the 1950s with boys at a summer camp, it was shown that intense conflict would break out when teams were given competing goals, but that tension gave way to cooperation when they were given a common objective.
Many managers today go to great efforts to design innovative workplaces and they take a variety of different approaches. Yet what seems most important isn’t the actual specifics of the architecture, but whether it’s designed to empower or to dictate. If we feel we have power over our environment, we tend to be much more productive and collaborative.
Of course, when everyone gets to make their own decisions things can get a little messy, but that’s what often produces better results.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Inc.com