Reading List: A Perfect Mess

Sloppy? Disorganized? You’re probably more effective, too, say the authors of A Perfect Mess.

A Perfect Mess

By Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman
Little, Brown, January 2007 304 pp., $25.99


Forget what everyone from your first boss to your mother taught you. The authors of A Perfect Mess are here to say that “moderately disorganized people, institutions, and systems frequently turn out to be more efficient, more resilient, more creative, and in general more effective than highly organized ones.” Even better, they have proof–in this compelling and comical tour of humanity’s guilt-ridden love affair with accidents, messes, and randomness.

Wry, informal, and occasionally brain tickling, A Perfect Mess offers more than just a free pass for slobs. Many of the examples of messy strategy, leadership, and organizations are fresh and actually useful. In a section on “mess and organizations,” the authors profile Scientific Generics, a firm that “has no real ‘main’ line of business.” Its 300 employees devote their time to discovering and taking advantage of “unserved niches in any market,” the result being 17 years of new toys, medical devices, display screens, and other worthwhile inventions. Van’s Aircraft, a personal airplane manufacturer, cruises the blurry front lines of cocreation (messy in that it represents a revolt against business as usual) by not only encouraging customer modifications but also by helping develop and market them to others. A chapter on “messy leadership” highlights restaurateur Danny Meyer’s quirky union of eight successful but disparate-themed New York eateries. Meyer avoids egocentric chefs who would impose their own distinct order because he wants to encourage “rampant and collegial improvisation, not dictatorial consistency and rigidity.”

There are a few misguided efforts here–worst among them the authors’ desire to classify and dissect every species of mess and mess maker. Most of these passages, such as the ways people can be messy and types of messiness, are plodding and make the authors seem oblivious to the irony of their highly ordered taxonomies. But focusing on these cavils misses the point. A Perfect Mess is a guilty pleasure that will absolve you for that unkempt office and spark further thinking. You’ll want to pass it on to every anal-retentive boss you’ve ever had.

Combine the “world is not as it seems” mind-set of Freakonomics with … the delicious celebration of popular culture found in Everything Bad Is Good for You to get … the cocktail-party-chatter-ready anecdotes of messiness leading to genius in A Perfect Mess.