Albert Einstein was well known for his messy workspaces, about which he famously quipped, “if a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” Similarly, Mark Twain, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerburg are all creative minds that are known for working at cluttered – some might say chaotic – desks. In contrast, recent workplace trends seem to be focused on minimalism, and many organizations are placing an increasingly high value on neat and clean areas, clearly defined structures and an overall sense of order. Given these contrasting styles, it’s worth exploring whether current trends and habits are hurting attempts to foster creativity and innovating thinking and, if so, what organizations should do to combat this.
The Correlation between Messiness and Creativity
Kathleen Vohls, a researcher at the University of Minnesota, conducted a series of experiments to determine whether there was an actual correlation between creativity and messiness or whether it was nothing more than an urban legend. Through their experiments, her team concluded that people surrounded by cleanliness tended to prefer convention, while those in messiness preferred novelty. Further, their experiments showed that people in messy spaces were more creative and quicker at solving problems. Ultimately, the team reached the conclusion that messiness and creativity are at the very least strongly correlated, and Vohls more specifically concluded that “while cleaning up certainly has its benefits, clean spaces might be too conventional to let inspiration flow.”
What this Correlation Means for Organizations
Most organizations, especially those that are in their early years, are anxious to find the most creative problem solvers and innovative leaders. Teams that embody creativity are consistently at the forefront of their industry’s innovations, they effectively respond to market changes and they have an ongoing ability to respond to mistakes and make necessary corrections. Obviously, these are characteristics that can take an organization from mediocre to great or can mean the difference between a startup that thrives versus one that doesn’t survive.
At the same time, however, there’s a desire and need for structure, order and cleanliness, both literally and figuratively. If Kohl’s research is correct and these are environments that can kill creativity, the question then becomes how to balance these seemingly competing interests. Dan Kraus of Leading Results describes this difficult balance by asserting that creativity lies in between organization and chaos.
In Messy: How to be Creative and Resilient in a Tidy-Minded World, Tim Harford further describes the balance by noting that there is a place in organizations for both confusion and clarity and cleanliness and messiness. Further, he asserts that some amount of messiness makes you more alert, perceptive and creative and that “[r]eal creativity, excitement and humanity lies in the messy parts of life, not the tidy ones.”
Tips for Finding Your Team’s Balance Between Organization and Chaos
Finding this balance while also ensuring that necessary structures are in place to meet daily demands appears to be more of an art than a science. Further, almost by definition, it’s a balance that is unique to each organization. Nevertheless, there are some general principles to keep in mind as you work to find the right amount of order, messiness or chaos for your team.
- Be thoughtful about workspaces. There is a correlation between the design of your workspaces and employee creativity and performance. While minimal and sparkling shared workspaces are increasingly popular, these can have detrimental effects on your team’s creativity. Whatever your workplace design, consider having spaces that allows employees to create some mess – whether it’s post-it notes, charts, photographs or diagrams. Plus, if possible, include spaces designed or decorated by your team and encourage a layout that fosters networking, both within and across teams.
- Leave room for improvisation. We all like well-organized meetings, presentations that are scripted and collaboration that is focused. Yet, allowing room for getting off the script and agenda can create some of the desired organizational messiness. For example, in Messy, Harford argues that stopping the flow of ideas in a meeting can shut down new and potentially brilliant ideas. While some structures are often inevitable, work to allow space for improvisation and know when to let the structures go.
- Embrace planned and unplanned distractions. In a busy workplace, there is a tendency to want nothing but on-task and focused work from your team all day. However, distractions can help harness creativity and allow the mind to wander in a way that encourages it to make new connections. From useful diversions to changing contexts to flexible attention and daydreaming, don’t be afraid to allow and even encourage some distractions.
- Give your team lots of leeway. One of the best ways that leaders can encourage creativity within their teams is just by letting them run free. Allow your team space to forget about rules for a bit and to just think. Further, the more control that you can give them over a project, the better. This leeway removes some of the constraints that lead to conventional thinking and gives them space to let their minds and creativity flourish.
Order is convenient, it is neat, and it often leads to short-term profits. However, the most successful organizations are those that embrace a culture of creativity and innovative problem solving, which is often found amidst some messiness. While this looks different for every organization, consider ways that your team can let go of some order and add some messiness in the name of creativity.