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"Scruffies": The Merits of Messy Employees


(April 24, 2008)  Some HR ideas that seem to go without saying deserve examination after all. For example, a lot of companies have "clean-desk" policies that they enforce on their employees. Tidiness is presumed to be next to effectiveness.

But that's not so, according to David Kirsh, cognitive science researcher at the University of California, San Diego. He distinguishes the "scruffies" with messy desks from the "neats" with clean cubicles, but says that either approach to working can be equally efficient. The worker with a cluttered desk is employing an idiosyncratic but useful method of organizing his or her files and papers. A look at the desk of the "scruffy" will reveal much about his or her tasks and priorities. But a manager, looking at the pristine, tidy work-station of a "neat", won't be able to tell if the "neat" is doing good work, bad work, or no work at all.

Kirsh's discoveries are part of the body of evidence for the benefits of "scruffiness" presented in "A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder" by Eric Abrahamson and David Freedman (Back Bay Books: 2007) Sloppiness can make work, and the rest of life, better in surprising ways.

The messy desk is emblematic of a larger phenomenon, which the authors describe formally:
"Descriptive complexity theory, a branch of information science that characterizes the sorts of resources required to solve certain problems, dictates that the amount of information that can be represented in a system increases with the randomness of the system." (p. 161)
A chaotic cubicle offers lots of clues for the worker to use in prioritizing, and re-prioritizing, his tasks. It also invites him or her to make a rich array of connections among tasks, so that he or she can respond more creatively and flexibly to problems. It might take the "scruffy" more time to locate a given document or file than a "neat" would need. But the "neat" may well be expending much time in maintaining an organizational scheme that adds only marginally, or may be detrimental, to his or her working efficiency.

The authors cite the example of law firms that sometimes must provide vast amounts of documents to opposing lawyers in preparation for trials. The evidence is returned later, often in total disarray. What is the marginal utility of reorganizing the files, at great expense in time and effort? Some lawyers are giving up on re-filing; they'll save time by pawing through the boxes only when they must.

It may seem obvious that alphabetizing files is the most efficient way to order them. But consider how very many key words can be used to identify any particular document. A lot of "neat" filing turns out to be orderly-looking chaos that is almost as hard to sort through as the scattered stuff on a "scruffy's" desků and it takes more time to maintain.

A sloppy worker can use stochastic resonance to bump up his or her productivity. The book describes in detail the many positive applications of introducing "noise" into physical and social systems. A random, otherwise meaningless signal can "bump up" a meaningful signal so that it can be detected. The authors offer the example of Arnold Schwarzenegger's highly effective yet highly disordered career - or, to be more exact, careers. The governor of the most populous state in the US doesn't keep a schedule, makes few firm appointments, and has no clear legislative philosophy. However one might opine about his politics, if they can be divined at all, nobody can doubt that he gets things done.
"He has managed to maintain a malleable public persona and a nimble agenda that's easily adjusted to take advantage of unexpected opportunities and fast-changing, unpredictable situations." (p. 77)
Employers, perhaps its time to take a second look at "scruffy" applicants!

by Jim Burklo

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