Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A Perfect Mess

I've been reading A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder - how crammed closets, cluttered offices, and on-the-fly planning make the world a better place by Eric Abramson and David H. Freedman.

If you are a neat freak or a slavish follower of GTD - Getting Things Done - you won't like this book.
"A Perfect Mess overturns the accepted wisdom that tight schedules, organization, neatness, and consistency are the keys to success," they intone. "Drawing on examples from business, parenting, cooking, the war on terrorism, retail, and even the meteoric career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, [the authors] demonstrate that moderately messy systems use resources more efficiently, yield better solutions, and are harder to break than neat ones." jacket
One of my pet peeves about business books at the moment is the "interesting subject for a short article fleshed out to about 200 pages"-type book. While A Perfect Mess runs to over 300 pages, the information keeps flowing in a way that engages and expands the argument, rather than just re-stating it - although I still think it could have been a little shorter. There are some interesting stories here. It's one of those books that are best taken out of the library... it's a good read, but not a must buy.

Abramson and Freedman begin by clarifing their perspective:
"Let’s be clear on a few important points. First of all, it’s obvious that at a certain point mess becomes dysfunctional. We’re now saying that messier is always better. We’re not anarchists calling for the dissolution of national government, social order and organizations. Burying oneself in extraneous clutter and operating without rhyme or reason quickly becomes paralyzing – those are examples of what we call "pathological mess," about which we’ll have something to say later on. Some situations leave little room for mess; nobody would want to go to a messy eye surgeon. Rather, we argue that there is an optimal less of mess for every aspect of every system. That is in any situation there is a type and level of mess at which effectiveness is maximized, and our assertion is that people and organizations frequently err on the side of over-organization. In many cases they can improve by increasing mess, if it’s done in the right way. At a minimum, recognizing the benefits of mess can be a major stress-reducer – many of us are already operating at a more-or-less appropriate level of mess, but labor under the mistaken belief we’re failing in some way because of it.... Also, we are in no way saying that people should be slobs; a certain amount of cosmetic neatening…can go a long way. Indeed, as you’ll see, we encourage it in many situations."
I think there are some things here that apply to the conversation around the missional / emerging church. The church too often looks like the 1990's IBM "management structure that took the form of an eight-dimensional matrix, whose working presumably would have been perfectly transparent to anyone conversant in string theory." [p. 166] We overly systematize things when I think the gospel and what God is doing is a lot more messy. We tend to be control freaks when our response to the gospel is to let go of control.

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