Sometime ago (before I disappeared off on holiday for many weeks 🙂 ) Simon Elliot pinged a number of us to ask:

Subject: order vs chaos

Ive got a question for you …

Whats better and nice clean orderly company or a messy one?
My feeling is that some mess is good, but I would love to know what you think.

The answer has turned out to be a post in itself, first let’s recap on the starting scenario:

Imagine two hypothetical companies,

Spick & Span
This company is organized to the maximum efficiency
Their data is in the most normalized form (no one piece of data is repeated)
Their process are perfectly efficient and no task is ever repeated.
They do have redundancy in their system but this again is perfectly sized.
Their people are hardworking, intelligent and enjoy their jobs.

This company is not organized in any way nothing is written down
There are no job titles, roles and responsibilities or appraisals.
Their data is literally strewn around the office.
Loads of tasks are repeated, there are teams that are entire duplicates.
Their people are hardworking, intelligent and enjoy their jobs.

Now I think for most people, the company they have been working at will be a mixture of both ideas. Simon’s conclusion is that in an unstable environment, Splat & O’Messy will react better because they won’t be caught in the usual resource/decision making deadlock that happens when things change.

I have another two observations which is that Spick & Span is what every large corporation aspires to, but ends up being Splat & O’Messy, and Splat & O’Messy is what a start-up is, and tries to become Spick & Span.

I think the idea of a fully “normalised” (i.e. one function does one thing) company is unrealistic. Any company that works in multiple territories cannot realistically do this sensibly. Consider HR. Local regulations are different and a homogenised approach is an aspiration but not reality, take Paid Sick Leave as an example. You don’t get this in some territories, but do in others.

Another aspect is when the company has a very diversified product line. Is the sales and product management function the same for all ? Hardly, similar, but not the same.

There are many use cases where you need duplication of resource in order to fulfil the company’s function, it can never be perfectly sized because we aren’t fortune-tellers, but you can help things along:

  1. Every business has a certain amount of unavoidable complexity, the important thing to find out is what it is and ensure you are as close to is as possible and not increasing it.
  2. Over regulation of the information in a business can be counter productive, there should be a core set of structures but units can act autonomously beyond those. (The spirit of the information).
  3. Don’t mistake Pillars of Information for efficiency, ultimately it will cost the business too much to fix.
  4. Ultimately time is the most valuable resource, it can be wasted, invested or saved, how that happens is down to an intimate understanding of the company’s business. The measurement of the effects can take far longer then the process, so look as far ahead as you can, up to 5 years if you can do it.
  5. If a worker’s desk is a mess but they know where everything is, then you won’t notice a problem until you give the desk to someone else. Same with the department/team/company. Plan for change, and manage the mess.

In conclusion, yes a little “mess” is going to happen, but with a little time, you can manage that, and still be reactive. Frankly there is no substitute for hard-work and planning, how you do that planning is up to your company as a whole as this is part of the character of the company. If Spick & Span have done all this, then they’ll out-perform Splat & O’Messy… until they buy them…