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The right level of mess

(initially published on LinkedIn on January 24th 2018)

A few years back I read a book about striking the right level of mess in any organisation. This riveting read really consolidated some thoughts I had on how to build sustainable organisations. This book, apart from being very funny and agreeable to read, is well researched and unlike the title suggests, well structured. For those of you who have already read it, you will of course have recognized A Perfect Mess.

I strongly recommend its reading to all people who feel guilty of not being ordered enough. It debunks a lot of myths about the perceived value of order and the cost it frequently exacts on our time, no matter what time management, house restructuring, clean desk policers and other life organizing experts would like us to believe. Chances are: You can relax.

I wholly adhere to the principles proposed by Abrahamson and Freeman, and have been applying them for years already in my practice, always consciously trying to keep ordered what really has to be (Like invoices and contracts), and leave the rest to be messy.

Yesterday I stumbled upon a brilliant illustration of the unexpected benefits of leaving something unorganised, or more accurately organised at the right level of mess. Arriving for a business meeting in the picturesque city of Leiden, I was advised by my host to simply park my car at the 'Park and Ride' on Haagweg 8. From there I could easily take a Citybus said he.

The Leiden Citybus takes people to the city centre. The centre of Leiden was developped prior to cars being invented, and is, to say the least, lacking in parking space. No matter, it makes up this functional disadvantage by simply being stunning. The place is so beautiful that it falls victim to the constant hustle and bustle of people who live there or come to visit because it's beautiful, study there because it's so alive, shop there because it's cool, eat there because who can say no to bitterbalen in Leiden, or work there, because it's full of beautiful people, trendy shops, smart and lively students and casually chic places to eat.

Now, let's get back to our bus. I digressed. Citybus exists for 21 years, so it's not like it's a super-hype-startup-concept-search-engine-optimized-21st-century-disruptive invention. It's a friendly congestion coping mechanism.

I get onboard, and ask the driver when the bus leaves. He says: "When there are people in it". "So you do not have a fixed timetable?". "No. I just look around. See there's a guy coming up there, so we're waiting for him and we're on our way.". "Ok cool" I respond. Then he says, "Where are you going?" I give him the address. He says "Fine". Then the second guy comes in, same thing. They chat a bit about his destination. So the driver this guy and I are now in a conversation to see what's the best way to send everyone to their destination at the right time. We agree the second guy needs to go first and then me. I ask "So you have no fixed driving route either?". He says "No, the traject is agreed onboard by chatting with people.".

Messy, ingenious, brilliant!

Here are the benefits of this messy approach:

  • We did not have to wait, the bus took the fastest route to both our destinations, saving time and carbon footprint.

  • The driver is not just a driver, he is a multidimensional time and space social optimizer, and he didn't mind giving me a quick bite of history about the building where I was going. He created a nice chatty atmosphere, and it's always a delight to workout things with total strangers.

  • If I get stranded in the middle of Leiden, with my arms loaded from my shopping, a delicious sandwich dripping some sauce in one hand and my phone in the other, I can call Citybus, and they come and pick me up to bring me back to my car.

  • The cost: € 0.

Now the crunchiest detail is this one: Citybus of course has a license from the municipality to use the bus/taxi lanes. In Leiden it means that they cut short any route by about 70%. Now that's something that requires good organisation...

I told you... It's all about finding the right level of mess! :-)



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