Introduce a Bit of Chaos to Your Business
By Jeffrey Baumgartner
Creative ideas are the result of two or more apparently unrelated concepts coming together in a way that solves a problem or achieves a goal. The more diverse the separate thoughts are, the more creative the resulting idea usually is.
This is probably why a lot of extremely creative people, such as artists, scientists and writers are also very disorganised people. The absent minded scientist often benefits from this weakness. In his mind, all kinds of thoughts are coming together, checking each other out and moving on. When an idea results, the scientist tries it out. The chaos in his mind may leave him absent minded, but it helps him think more creatively.
Too Much Structure
Unfortunately, from a creativity point of view, the corporate world is moving towards ever more structure. Formatted reports, data analysis tools, productivity tools, databases and just about every tool used in the corporate world tends to organise data in structured ways. These tools are designed to reduce chaos and instill order.
Moreover, companies tend to hire people who fit narrow, industry-specific profiles and, in larger organisations, job descriptions are becoming increasingly focused on very narrow specialisations. The result is an environment that is highly ordered, promotes conformity and is becoming increasingly less conducive to creativity and innovation. This is not a good thing
While it is indeed important to put order to chaos is, especially when businesses are collecting masses of data every day, it is also important sometimes to put a little chaos to your order − particularly if you want novel, innovative ideas. Chaos brings together dissimilar thoughts, concepts and bits of information, providing the mind with all kinds of creative possibilities.
The question is, how to bring a little chaos to an organisation without destroying the efficiency that is necessary for operations? Here are some suggestions...
At the Organisational Level:
Mixed teams. This is something I rant about frequently – and with good reason. If you bring together a variety of people from different divisions and backgrounds, you bring together a various different ways of thinking and problem solving. As a few people have remarked to me over the years, mixed teams can be chaotic and slow initially to move forward. What these critics don't realise is that this early chaos can be an advantage. It is conducive to creativity.
Facilitate informal encounters. When Steve Jobs designed Pixar's offices, he wanted the toilets to be centrally located so that people would run into others they do not normally encounter while at their desks. Toyota Europe, like other companies, has sets of chairs and sofas in various niches making it easy for two, three or four people spontaneously to find a place to sit and share ideas. When people who do not normally work together start talking, they bring new ideas to each other.
Randomly assign office seating. In most organisation, people work in proximity to their business unit. HR people in one space, marketing in another and so on. That's convenient for collaborating with your own kind and it facilitates the boss's nagging you, but it does not provide any chaos. Putting people from different business units in a any given space, on the other hand, would ensure that people with different skills, backgrounds and responsibilities are interacting with each other daily. That's sure to bring a bit of chaos and responsibility.
But no open plan office space, please. It was once assumed that open plan offices, were everyone sits in a big room with open desks (rather than cubical walls), would be a good thing. Experts claimed it would encourage spontaneous conversations, easy collaboration and lots of creativity. But, it turns out that open plan offices actually encourage massive distraction, enflame interpersonal problems and make it a hell of a lot harder to get work done.
At the Individual Level:
Change your routines. Routines are very unchaotic and the more entrenched you become in your routines, the more you are likely to be upset by anything that challenges our order. So, if you want to introduce a little inspirational chaos into your life, the first thing you need to do is introduce some chaos. If you eat the same breakfast every day, eat something different tomorrow. If you always drive to work, use public transportation or ride a bicycle occasionally. If you always eat lunch with the same colleagues, tell them that you should all find new lunch partners one day a week. And so on. Your day is almost inevitably full of routines. Change some of them sometimes and you will add a tiny bit of chaos to your mind.
Walk and talk. When you need to talk to a colleague, don't e-mail or telephone. Walk to your colleague's desk and talk. Just moving around and seeing other people at work adds a wee bit of chaos. Bumping into people and exchanging ideas while you are walking around adds new ideas – and more chaos to your order. You can even take this one step further (if you'll pardon the pun) and go for a walk with your colleague in order to discuss the issue. A walk, ideally outdoors, gets you away from the office, gives your senses new stimuli and inspires freer thinking.
Seek advice from new people. Next time you need some advice about a work related issue, find someone you've never met before and ask her for advice. Do not worry about the intrusion, most people enjoy offering advice as it proves their expertise. If you start your request with something like, “Jeffrey Baumgartner tells me you are an expert in on-line security. If you have a few moments, could you advise me on how to tackle a little problem?”, you will almost certainly be met with co-operation. Meeting and getting advice from new people also brings new ideas.
Find different tools to accomplish a job. If you typically organise thoughts on a spreadsheet, try using a mind mapping program or even writing your ideas on a piece of paper. If you start your thoughts on paper, try using a computer program instead. If you always make business presentations using PowerPoint, try a presentation in which you use only a whiteboard or flip-chart. You get the idea.
If You Want to Push Chaos Further...
Cut and paste. Put key words and phrases into a spreadsheet, print the spread sheet, cut it into pieces so each cell is on a separate piece and dump them all on a table. Mess them up and then move pieces of paper about to see what concepts come together.
Give some tasks to people who do not have much relevant experience. For example, if you are planning to update product packaging, ask someone in accounting or human resources for her suggestions.
Indeed, any action that disrupts typical day to day activities in your work can also bring a little chaos and fresh thinking. And that leads to creativity.
Go on, give it a try.
This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared in the 15 August 2006 issue of Report 103.
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