These are the labels we reserve for people who are overtly organized, and, let’s face it, they’re not very nice. In society and media, villains are often portrayed as organization-obsessed killjoys and autocrats. Heroes nowadays are typically disheveled and charmingly disorganized—even once-clean cut Superman is now sporting some serious scruff.
The underlying message here is plain: organization is bad, disorganization is virtuous.
But what do we have against organized people and organization in general? Organized people make the rest of us feel self-conscious about our organizational shortcomings. Well-thought out systems make our dinky, slapped-together spreadsheets look bad. So we eye overtly organized people with suspicion and derision, even in the business world. We outrightly rebel against attempts to further organize our teams. And we do this almost purely as a gut reaction.
I say “gut reaction” because, if we really sit back and think about the role of organization in our companies, we see that our very survival depends upon it. (I say this as a naturally disorganized person who has reluctantly converted to the ways of organization and order.)
The truth is, organization is essential, disorganization invites extinction.
As comfortable as poor organization can sometimes make us feel, it can be deadly to companies, for these five reasons…
1. Poor organization raises your costs and hurts revenue
When I say “disorganization at work,” what comes to mind? Maybe documents kept in odd places, often with no rhyme or reason. Maybe a manager who seems to constantly be asking, “Where’s File X?” or “What’s happening with Project A?” Maybe you picture a recent meeting where an important task, project, or initiative had been picked up by no one.
The common theme here is the nagging feeling of not knowing, not being sure. In turn, this ambiguity makes things take longer and causes things to be forgotten. And these delays get expensive.
Rick Meekins, managing partner at consulting firm Aepiphanni, explains:
“If you are working 80 hours a week and don’t feel like you are getting much done (you are fighting fires all day!) you are probably disorganized…The bottom line is that time is money; wasted time means that you are missing out on opportunities to earn revenue or serve your clients.”
2. Poor organization reduces quality
Let me first intercept an incoming objection here: disorganization might have its uses for individuals when it comes to creative work.
For many people, clutter is the nest in which the best ideas are born. “Nothing is created in a vacuum,” they say, motioning to their burrow of papers, manila folders, and sticky notes. The implication here is that the papers, folders, and sticky notes are the source of their genius.
And this view seems to be supported by some research. Take, for instance, the study published by the University of Minnesota, which placed people in one of two rooms: one where papers scattered across the table and floor, and one where markers and papers had been neatly arranged. They were then asked to come up with new creative uses for ping-pong balls. Advocates of disorganization rejoiced when the people in messy rooms were found to generate five times more creative ideas than those in tidy rooms.
Score one for one poor organization, right? Not so fast.
Consider another study where people were placed in either a messy desk space or a clean, organized space and then moved to a separate room and asked to trace “a geometric figure without retracing any lines or lifting the pencil from the paper”—considered to be a challenging, even unsolvable, task.
Surely, the people from messy rooms fared better, right?
“Those who had been exposed to the neat environment stuck with the task for an average of 1,117 seconds before giving up, more than 1.5 times as long as those who had been exposed to the messy space (669 seconds),” reported researchers Boyoun Chae and Rui Zhu. “Other experiments produced similar results.”
Taken together, these two studies raise some interesting questions about the link between disorganization and performance. While disorganization seems to feed creativity at the individual level, it also seems to have a negative impact on higher thinking.
And what about at the organizational level, where speed, volume, and coordination between team members take over as top priority? When work is consistently behind schedule (see #1) and expectations tend to be underdeveloped, you can bet that the teams involved won’t produce their best work.
Quality is always a casualty of poor organization. Poorly organized companies are then left putting their second- or third-best foot forward every time they make a move.
3. You make under-informed decisions
On poorly organized work teams, data is always incomplete and, therefore, unreliable. Some data is on a document on someone’s personal drive. Some data is in that email the boss sent two weeks ago. Still other data is kept on a shared spreadsheet that was outdated two minutes after it was last updated. In this disorganized environment, you are never able to get a complete picture.
How does this affect a manager’s ability to make strategic decisions? Without complete, reliable data, she cannot make well-informed decisions. She can make educated guesses at what is in her blind spots. She can rely on her own gut instincts to navigate the minefield she cannot see. But she can never consider her decisions ‘well-informed’.
Some decisions might still hit their mark. Others won’t. The greater the disorganization, the more decision-making becomes a roll of the dice.
4. You’re constantly late/stuck in reactive mode
I’ve discussed the delays that seem to be the daily companion of under-organized teams, but just how do these delays manifest themselves at the company level? Chew on these sobering stats:
A 2012 McKinsey study found that “17% of large IT projects go so badly that they can threaten the very existence of the company.”
The same study found that large IT projects ran 45% over budget and 7% past deadline, on average. A KPMG survey found that 70% of organizations had experienced at least one project failure in the last 12 months. 50% of those surveyed said their project failed to consistently achieve what they set out to achieve. Only 40% of projects meet schedule, budget and quality goals, according to an IBM study.
Let those stats soak in for a moment. The first eye-opener here is that more companies struggle with poor organization than we tend to think. But the second is how poor organization manifests itself—in late, over-budget projects and projects that fail to meet expectations.
At the end of the day, a failed project is stumbling block to its company. A late marketing campaign, for instance, can often mean that a crucial first mover advantage has been lost. A botched development project can turn a would-be profit into a loss.
What was once a visionary move to get ahead of the competition is turned, by poor organization, into a heartbreaking, morale-crushing collapse.
When you allow disorganization to thrive, you will rarely, if ever, be first to market. You will likely never lead your market. Instead, you are consistently stuck reacting to the faster moves of your competitors and the changes in the market.
5. People get burnt out and leave
Remember the aforementioned study about tracing the geometric shape and the linkage between disorder and higher rates of frustration? The level of order within an organization—excluding the extreme Orwellian variety—always has a direct correlation to employee engagement and satisfaction.
In commenting on the results of their annual employee engagement, Gallup’s Annamarie Mann and Jim Harter said:
“Engagement isn’t determined by an abstract feeling; it’s the result of concrete performance management activities, such as clarifying work expectations, getting people what they need to do their work, providing development or promoting positive coworker relationships.”
The opposite is also true. When disorganization takes over, when work expectations aren’t clear, when people don’t know or can’t get what they need to be effective, when clarity and purpose are replaced by confusion and suspicion, team members check out and start looking to greener pastures.
This was supported by a 2015 Workfront survey of UK office workers, which found that 6 in 10 blamed poor planning and a lack of organization for their rising stress levels.
And what did these same workers recommend to reduce stress and re-engage them? 48% said better structure and tools.
In other words, for all the griping about organizing your work, at least half of workers recognize the need to get organized and the sanity it can bring to their lives.
A Work in Progress
For the majority of this post, I’ve written about disorganization and organization as if most team and individuals were in either one camp or the other. But, speaking as an organizational newbie, I know that the truth is that all teams are somewhere on a spectrum between “hopeless mess” and “anal retentive.” No one team is free of organizational faux pas. No team is totally resigned to complete chaos. It should be clear, however, that our ability to increase the organization within our teams—to see what’s happening, to know what needs to be done next and who’s working on what—will largely determine our ability to be the winning teams we want to be.
About the Author
Marcus is a content strategist and producer who loves helping brands craft content that improves customers' lives, builds brand credibility, and demands to be shared. For the last 10 years, Marcus has worked in every type of content—from writing to video production to design—and is currently a senior content marketing manager at Workfront, where he oversees all corporate- and awareness-level level content. When he's not producing content, he's consuming it, in the form of books, movies, and podcasts.Follow on Twitter More Content by Marcus Varner