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A mess at the workplace. Review of an idea from the book “Chaos” by Tim Harford

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Tim Harford’s book “Chaos” is about the impact of disorder on our lives and thinking. Using research from psychology and the social sciences, as well as examples from the lives of prominent people, the author explains that creativity and resilience are integral to confusion, disorder and chaos.

Tim Harford is the world’s best-selling author of The Undercover Economist, The Logic of Life and Adaptation. Senior Columnist at the Financial Times. In 2015 he received the Royal Statistical Society Award for Skills in Journalism.

Tim Harford’s book comprehensively explores the positive effects of chaos on all aspects of our lives. In our review, we’ll cover the chaos in the workplace and why no one should be touched, whether you’re cleaning your desk or not.

Destructive order

Is it a common practice for you to keep your workplace clean and tidy? This is a reasonable requirement. Everyone can agree that living in cleanliness is much more pleasant than in mud. However, there are organizations that are literally obsessed with ensuring that an employee’s workplace meets not only cleanliness standards, but also many other regulations and codes that have been developed by their superiors. Is this good or bad? Let’s find out. In 2010, two psychologists at the University of Exeter, Alex Haslam and Craig Knight, conducted a series of rather curious experiments. Their essence was as follows. They created a prototype of a standard office, invited volunteers and asked them to solve some work problems. The experiment was carried out in four variations.

In the first case, psychologists equipped the office in accordance with the strictest regulations, that is, they left only a table, a chair and a minimum set of working tools in the room.

In the second, psychologists decided to revive the space a little and hung a picture of flowers on the wall.

In the last two experiments, the office was the same as in the second version, only they brought more vases with flowers and photo frames.

In the third case, the participants in the experiment were asked to place the interior elements the way they wanted. If desired, they could even remove all elements to make the office “as efficient as possible”.

The fourth experiment turned out to be the most “cruel” one. Psychologists asked the participants to arrange the objects as they wanted, and then went into the office and, in front of the participants, began to remove the objects and redo everything in their own way.

Which version of the office interior do you think contributed to the efficiency and the most efficient performance of tasks? The results were as follows: in the office, where employees could decide for themselves how to equip their workplace, 15% more tasks were completed than where the painting with flowers hung (second option), and 30% more than in the most ascetic which met all the standards. The lowest productivity was in the fourth office, where employees complained of lack of energy and lack of motivation. Some participants experienced anger and rage and were even ready to defend their choice with their fists. But these are all experiments. What about real life? Tim Harford, author of the book, cites two order-obsessed companies as examples.

The management of the Japanese company Kyocera is the most ardent supporter of a strict management system, which is based on the 5C rule – sorting, keeping order, keeping it clean, improving. Employees are regularly inspected to ensure that their workplaces are perfectly clean and comply with all regulations. Those who do not comply with the requirements can be fined or even fired. The company’s management explains such strict procedures by the fact that they want to impress the guests of the company. However, the author of the book doubts this, because guests will not look into the cabinets or desks of employees. And, according to the regulations, it is strictly forbidden for everyone to keep personal belongings at workplaces. Needless to say, employees of a Japanese company feel oppressed and incapable of making any independent decisions?

If industrial asceticism flourishes in Kyocera, then on the other side is the American company Chiat / Day, which became famous for creating the famous “1984” commercial for Apple. Jay Chiat, the founder of the company, was obsessed with creating the office space of the future for his employees. He got rid of all the classic office elements (even the tables were removed), making the office spacious and technological. All major publications have written about the incredibly modern office of Chiat / Day. Many companies even started asking for a tour of the office. There were so many people willing that at some point the company’s management decided to make the excursions paid. You might think that amid architectural liberties, the agency’s employees also had tremendous freedom. However, this was not the case, Jay Chiat had a fad, he absolutely did not tolerate personalized workspaces: all these pots of flowers, frames with family photos and certificates of personal achievement. Employees were forbidden to have all this, as well as to organize the space the way they want. Moreover, the employees did not even have their own permanent workplace, they had to constantly move around the office, and a special place for storing working documents was not planned. Sometimes this led to the fact that important contracts were kept by employees in the car. They were forced to constantly leave the office to get one of them. Once it got to the point that a resourceful employee appeared in the office, who thought of carrying all his papers and things in a small cart from the supermarket.

Chiat / Day employees were thrown into the chaos of order by the eccentric leader every day. It shouldn’t even come as a surprise that the agency’s performance began to plummet downward, and staff turnover was extremely high. Chiat / Day was threatened with bankruptcy, but everything ended well in the end. Jay Chiat decided to sell all of his assets before they were completely devalued, thereby removed from management, and the new managers allowed employees to have personal belongings and gave more freedom. After a while, the company’s performance began to improve.

Scientific research and practical experience allow us to understand that strict requirements in a commercial company in terms of order and discipline have a significant impact on reducing employee motivation, developing apathy and anxiety. The company seems to become indifferent to one of the most important human needs – freedom, and thus employees become indifferent to the fate of the company. Records are falling, the company’s business is in decline.

What is the environment in a chaotic workplace? Let’s get a look.

Chaos miraculous

So, we learned that according to our experiment, people who worked in free space showed the highest performance in performing work tasks. When a person is given freedom of action, he stops being distracted by negative emotions and can fully concentrate on completing work tasks. In other words, management needs to stop pushing employees into a rigid framework and not interfere with their work. A remarkable example of a chaotic space is Building 20, built during the war at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This building was intended to conduct secret experiments to develop high-precision radars. Building 20 was under construction in a hurry, designed by young architect Don Winston in literally overnight. And the builders erected the building using the cheapest materials in a couple of months. In fact, it was an ordinary barrack intended for scientific research. Building 20 was planned to be demolished immediately after the war, but this did not happen. It was demolished only in 1998. Why? The answer is slightly unusual. This barrack literally became an incubator for geniuses and their incredible inventions.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Building 20

The chaotic atmosphere that reigned there, and the absolutely informal atmosphere, contributed to the most daring experiments. The world’s first atomic clock was invented there. The building became the cradle of the hacker culture, and the hacking methods invented there were very, very unusual. The world’s first arcade game Spacewar was created in Building 20. There, Noam Chomsky and Morris Halle revolutionized linguistics. This is not a complete list of scientific discoveries that were presented by a simple structure made of plywood, cinder blocks and asbestos. The success of Building 20 was in the chaotic layout and in the fact that people were absolutely not worried about the fact that someone would come and say that their desk was in the wrong place. One of the scientists recalls that once for one experiment they had to stretch a wire from one room to another. How would this process take place in an ordinary building with a strict hierarchy of employees and many bureaucratic procedures? It would be necessary to write an application, wait for an answer to it, then wait for the master to come, etc. In time, the resolution of this issue could drag on for a week. However, in Building 20, such issues were easily resolved. The scientists simply drilled a hole in the wall and threw the wires into the next room. And another group of eminent scientists working in neighboring offices once demolished a wall so that they could not waste time on unnecessary movements and there was more space for placing complex equipment. 

The layout of Building 20 was immensely mysterious. For example, to get to the E wing, you would have to go not through A, B, C, etc., but to look for it between the A wing and the D wing. For uninitiated people, it was quite a task. Endowed with all possible flaws, in the absence of the usual amenities, Building 20 has become a truly favorite place of work for many scientists. One scientist once said:

“We actually feel that this is our domain. We created them and we manage them. “

When it was decided to demolish Building 20 and build an ultra-modern complex in its place, many did not hide the bitterness of the loss. Building 20 is not the only example of a successful space that encourages employees to reach their full potential. Of the existing ones, these are Googleplex, Google’s headquarters, as well as the Pixar building, in the design of which Steve Jobs himself took part. Ed Catmel, Pixar President says:

“The artists who work here are allowed, and even encouraged, to do whatever they please with their workspace.”


Chaos seems to be the secret weapon of talent. However, not every type of person is willing to put up with chaos at work. There are people for whom order is paramount. For what? What for? This is already a secondary issue. The main thing is that everything is in its place and everyone walks on line. When such people become leaders, employees begin to be driven into a rigid framework. The era of inventions is passing and it is being replaced by the time of standardization and a growing bureaucracy. The company’s products become dull and lifeless. The fuse goes out, motion by inertia begins. Tim Harford’s book provides the reader with some very serious food for thought. Filled with many life examples of miraculous chaos, it gives a different view of the organization of work and life.

After reading the book, you will also learn:

  • What are the advantages of improvisation and deviation from the script.
  • How to use chaos as a weapon in business, politics and war.
  • What traps are fraught with clear goals.
  • Why we should appreciate the mess in our children’s inbox, communication and play.

… and much more.

Whom do we recommend to read the book

  • Anyone who wants to reveal their creative talents.
  • Anyone who holds leadership positions and is responsible for introducing new rules for order in office premises.

Those who are fond of issues of personal effectiveness and self-development.

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