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US: 617-275-5706; UK: 0203 295-2051
Innovation, Mess, or Magic?

Posted on Tuesday 13 December 2016


Is it innovation, mess, or magic?  My editor Kathy found the book Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives to be stimulating reading relevant for innovators and thought leaders. Let us know what you think in the comments below this blog.


Mess, in Life and Business

“Life cannot be controlled. Life is messy.” Tim Harford


Innovation, mess, or magic?

So, I would argue, is business, particularly innovative thinking and thought leadership in business.

Invited to contribute to this issue, and firm believer that things happen for a reason, I was excited to come across Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives, by journalist/economist Tim Harford. He's gathered together some astonishing stories of artists, politicos and business people who were innovative enough to extract masterpieces from potential nightmares.

What does it take to ride the bucking bronco named Mess? Let me give you a couple of examples from the book.

A brief opening to each chapter sums up its takeaway. Chapter 1, for example, is entitled Creativity, followed by the quote “You’re asking the blood in your brain to flow in another direction.”  Followed by the synopsis: Bowie, Eno, and Darwin: How Frustration and Distraction Help Us Solve Problems in Art, Science, and Life.

The book is a carefully dissected collection of individual messes, across any number of fields.  It supports our understanding that mess can be very good for business.


Mess Can Be Good for Business

What? Mess good for business? Judge for yourself.

The chapter titled Workplaces (“Nobody cares what you do in there.” Where Steve Jobs Went Wrong, and Why It’s Nobody Else’s Business Whether You Tidy Your Desk) highlights two office spaces diametrically opposite in concept: MIT’s legendary Building 20 and the freeform workplace of designers Chiat/Day.


View of C Wing and F Wing of Building 20, 1997.

Building 20 was erected to house the secret “Radiation Lab,” chartered to turn crude radiation technology into crucial weapons of war. It was designed in an afternoon and “thrown up” almost in real time, according to an MIT professor who watched it being built. Nondescript from the outside, inside it was full of construction dust. It was too hot in summer, too cold in winter, a confusing labyrinth to navigate, and a firetrap. Occupancy was permitted only on condition that the building would be torn down within six months of the end of World War II.

Alternatively, Chiat/Day’s workspace was meticulously designed to enforce playfulness and mingling. The Los Angeles office showcased fairground pods (the seats on carnival rides that usually hold only two people), installed in hopes that employees would sit together and collaborate. No desks or cubicles. No paper permitted.

At Chiat/Day, the workspace was groups of couches and clusters of large tables. In their “no paper permitted” environment, technology was meant to be the workhorse, but laptops in 1993 were clunky, cellphones were unreliable, both were expensive, and the company didn’t order enough to go around so they were signed out on a first-come-first served basis. The trunks of workers’ cars were pressed into service to hold the outlawed paper.


The Results

Harford’s contrast of the output of the two workspaces is stunning:

“For two short years, Building 20 housed an astonishing cluster of researchers. One-fifth of the physicists in the United States passed through Rad Lab… Nine Nobel Prize winners emerged from [it], and the technology they and their colleagues developed was an unqualified success. Radars to allow planes to find U-boats. Radars to provide early warning of V-1 attacks on London. Radars to allow planes to land blind…to guide bombing raids; and more. The radar systems developed in Building 20 made previous technologies obsolete. The saying went that the atomic bomb may have ended the war, but it was radar that won it.”

Alternatively, "The bright colors, different architectural tones, clusters of couches interspersed with large tables, and use of mobile technology...have all been widely copied.  Chiat's desire to make the office more like a university campus – ('The idea is, you go to lectures, gather information, but you do your work wherever you like') – was ... ahead of its time. Microsoft and Google each now refer to their corporate headquarters as a campus."  However, daring and revolutionary as the Chiat office design was, work output took a free fall. In the words of an architect, “it is a place where play is ‘enforced’ on everyone, all the time.” A worker summed up the results as “…employee insurrections, internal chaos, and plummeting productivity.”


Form over Substance?

There was a certain amount of success.  "Though the office makeover was dysfunctional, it looked fabulous in photo spreads, and design magazines went wild for it. Chiat/Day even started hosting paid tours of their office space. Having wrenched the spotlight onto his agency, Jay Chiat cashed in by selling his stake in the firm to Omnicom. [However], before long, individual workspaces, paperwork, and dog pictures were back."  So, depending on your yardstick for success, Chiat/Day's bit of innovation certainly wasn't a total loss.

On the other hand, Building 20’s layout was so confusing that people would routinely get lost and wander into places they didn’t intend to go, sparking interchange with others whom the lost party would not likely meet otherwise. In the low-rise structure, conversations were often held in long corridors rather than in elevators as in most office buildings, where there’s only time for short conversations before one’s destination is reached. Even the building’s insides were reconfigurable: one lab needed to build a multi-story atomic clock, so the engineers removed a few floors to get the job done.


Enforced Play vs Agency

Like Chiat/Day, Building 20 swarmed with creative minds. But the occupants of Building 20 owned the playbook. The structure was not demolished until 1998 (more than 50 years after its expected end-of-life), at which point the university held its rendition of a wake and commemoration ceremony.   "... Building 20's true advantage [was] that the building's inhabitants felt confident that they had the authority ... to make changes, even messy changes ... it was so cheap and ugly that in the words of Stewart Brand, author of How Buildings Learn, "Nobody cares what you do in there."

However, it seems to me that there is an important bit of insight for managers of innovators and thought leaders here.  It would appear from these two examples that an important component of successful innovation is agency, or the ability to do things ones own way.  What strikes me is that one person appears to have benefited from the Chiat/Day experiment, where arguably the world benefited from the experiment that was Rad Lab.


The Benefits, Economic and Otherwise, of Improvisation and Mess

Mess runs counter to the well-planned, orderly, predictable grain of most corporations. But the deeper team relationships, trust, and willingness to improvise (read, lose control), exemplified in the Building 20 example mirrors the lessons for business of, for instance, the recording of Miles Davis’ album Kind of Blue. Not to mention the potential financial impact.

Triggered by an unexpected cymbal crash that was a “mistake,” the trumpeter caught the moment in a powerful solo. This ignited an album so revolutionary that jazz fusion pioneer Chick Corea posits it “practically create(d) a new language of music.”

And where this improv succeeded, huge economic benefits accrued as well. Kind of Blue was recorded in less than nine hours. The Beatles’ masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band took seven hundred. To put that in financial terms, Jazzwise magazine says of Kind of Blue: “It is all the more remarkable … that it was made on the cheap. A few thousand dollars contractual advance to Davis, union scale payment to six sidemen…nine hours studio time, four reels of tape and a piano tuner’s fee. Recorded on 2 March and 22 April 1959, it has achieved a feat few recordings have ever managed … [becoming] a truly timeless masterpiece.”

Whereas according to January 2015 Music, the cost for Sgt Pepper (in 1966) was 40 thousand pounds.

One suspects a similar discrepancy between the cost of Building 20 and the cost of the Chiat/Day offices...


Summing Up

Make no mistake.  Working with “mess” is not for the faint of heart or the inexperienced. Harford has filled each story with demonstrations of what it takes to successfully tap the energy of mess. This includes depth of experience, respect for one’s craft, and willingness to embrace the unknown.  It also includes knowing teammates well enough to know how they think, and their hesitations.  Because if teammates understand each others' hesitations, they're more likely to understand the reluctance, foot-dragging, lack of commitment, etc., that can sabotage a project, especially a high-stakes initiative.  Which means something can be done before the project gets derailed.

These are the foundation of astonishing outcomes.

These are threads of masterpiece-making that most of us would not normally choose to follow. Commenting later on Kind of Blue, even Miles Davis himself said that, while he loved the album, he had missed what he was originally trying to do with it. But innovators and thought leaders will.

And, in the messy climate of AD 2016 and forward, business leaders would do well to stay open to “results not as expected,” to draw on and cultivate the qualities showcased in this book. And to giving their innovators and thought leaders the tools, environment, and agency they need to do it.  That would answer the question, innovation, mess, or magic?  And help corporations create magic.

Contributed by Kathy O'Connor


Next Steps

Speak with me if you are trying to understand, better manage, and empower thought leaders in your organization.  I have worked with them throughout my career, and delight in helping them achieve the promise of their gifts.

And if this blog has resonated with you, please let us know as well as sharing your thoughts and experiences with others by commenting below.

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