You want more creativity and openness to what’s new? Get messy.

A great deal of the discussion that surrounds the adoption of new technologies in the enterprise — and their impacts on measurable desired outcomes — involves the cultural changes necessary for adoption. As a result, a considerable amount of time is dedicated to thinking about how cultural changes happen, and how they can be coaxed along.

I written about various approaches to cultural change, like the key role that positive deviants play (see How ‘positive deviants’ help a culture change itself, and Cultural change is really complex contagion, for example). One thing that I haven’t touched on much is physical space and its impact on our receptivity to change and innovation. Yes, there’s been a great deal said and written — including by me — about organizing the workplace to increase the likelihood of serendipitous encounters (see How business model innovation can be goosed: increase the likelihood of serendipity). But not much about the micro-level issues, like placement of chairs, what’s on our desks, and so on.

In a recent research study, Physical Order Produces Healthy Choices, Generosity, and Conventionality, Whereas Disorder Produces Creativity by Kathleen D. Vohs, Joseph P. Redden, and Ryan Rahinel of the University of Minnesota, reported on experiments that suggest that increasing the level of messiness in an office setting raises the creativity and willingness to accept novelty of test subjects.

Screenshot 2013-12-06 11.32.49The images above show the experimental setting for one of the two experiments in this study (there was an additional experiment regarding the impact of orderliness on healthy eating and willingness to make charitable donations, too. Order leads to better eating choices and less charitable donations, it turns out)

In the creativity experiment, it turns out that environmental disorder — the messy desks above — led test subjects to come up with more creative uses for ping-pong balls. As the researchers state [citations removed],

Being creative is aided by breaking away from tradition, order, and convention, and a disorderly environment seems to help people do just that. Three operationalizations of creativity supported our prediction that sitting in a messy, disorderly room would stimulate more creative ideas than sitting in a tidy, orderly room. It could be that our disorderly laboratory violated participants’ expectations, which can aid creativity. Our preferred explanation, though, is that cues of disorder can produce creativity because they inspire breaking free of convention. What is more, we observed a previously undocumented effect—that cues of disorder can produce highly desirable outcomes.

In the novelty experiment, a similar difference in messy and orderly surroundings was tested with respect to the preference for novelty over the conventional. The test subjects were shown menu items with only one difference, with ‘classic’ or ‘new’ shown, as a way to promote a smoothie ‘boost’ option (additional ingredients):

Screenshot 2013-12-06 11.43.02

The result: those in the messy office were more likely to pick the ‘new’ health boost option rather that the ‘classic’. Tha authors wrote

Experiment 3 showed that environmental order affected preferences for established versus novel outcomes. The results supported our prediction that an orderly environment would activate a mind-set of following convention whereas a disorderly environment would promote exploring new avenues. Highlighting the novelty of these results were the conclusions from a pretest, which confirmed that there was no normatively correct option in this context. Rather, orderliness seemed to encourage a general mind-set for conservatism and tradition, and disorder had the effect of stimulating the desire for the unknown.

The Bottom Line

Perhaps there really is something to chaotic environments full of toys and gizmos, and a relatively high degree of disarray out in Silicon Valley start-ups. A certain degree of disorder leads to a willingness to defy convention, embrace the new, and look for creative ways to do so.

This obviously has some possible application to cultural change in the organization. Consider the settings where people come together to discuss adopting new and innovative practices. Are they neat and tidy? Perhaps it would be better to have such a discussion in a context inherently more disordered, like a room with movable chairs and whiteboards on wheels, and intentionally disorganize the furnishings to avoid orderly rows and columns. Try to make sure the chairs are different sizes and shapes. Do not neatly stack copies of the report, but instead scatter them on various surfaces.

For those that are naturally neat this may prove to be difficult. Organizations that favor order and tidiness at a foundational level may in fact be subtly defeating their own efforts to make change by biasing staff toward conservatism and favoring tradition over novelty.

Companies wanting to up the baseline level of creativity and innovation should start at this foundational level: make things messier, and good things will happen.