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Professsor Profile: Eric Abrahamson of Columbia Business School

For MBAs with an interest or a major in organizational behavior, it may be helpful to consider its opposite – “disorganizational behavior” — a term Professor Eric Abrahamson of the Columbia Business School uses when discussing his theories on management strategies.

We’ve all had that professor or supervisor whose office is cluttered with reams of un-filed paper, and yet who seems to know exactly where everything is.

Or maybe we are that person.

As noted on his CV, Abrahamson’s expertise lies in “the creation, spread, use, and rejection of management innovations [and the] functioning of moderately disorderly or messy systems”.

After beginning his academic studies at Haverford College, Abrahamson went on to earn a master’s in philosophy, and then a PhD from New York University. This educational path has informed many of his ideas. Abrahamson argues in his most recent book, A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder that companies can benefit from focusing less on the rigidity of complex strategic plans, and more on the creativity that emerges from a more right brained approach to making profit.

Eric Abrahamson

Professor Eric Abrahamson

Abrahamson discussed this theory in a Q&A for Columbia’s Ideas at Work site,

Maintaining order and carrying out a plan whatever the consequences speaks of a certain rigidity. That might be fine in a stable world, but in our world, you need to be able to drop plans and pick up new ones, and this is true of both individuals and organizations. Sometimes strategic plans put blinders on people.”

 This research encompasses the large scale of organizations and the habits of individuals. American business culture, Abrahamson theorizes, has created a culture of shame for those who are disorganized, which he believes began during the age of machination and the Industrial Revolution.

“The machine became a metaphor for organizational systems, with people as cogs”, he says, “[And] there are many reasons people are biased toward being organized. We have deep-seated suspicions about mess and some people are very uncomfortable living with any level of disorder.”

He offers the example of Frederick Taylor, the American mechanical engineer, inventor and author, who established his “scientific management” approach in the turn of the 20th century. Taylor believed that the mechanization of the thriving American industrial economy was being hindered by the ‘weak link’ of the human. Efficiency could be improved only by making the worker behave more like a machine.

Abrahamson also delves into the design of office spaces, using the example of higher rates of productivity at companies who mix departments on the same floor, instead of dividing them onto separate levels. Further, industrial districts that possess a variety of types of companies (rather than all tech or finance, for instance) tend to show higher levels of productivity than those in non-mixed districts.

“Mess engenders creativity because it juxtaposes things that would have been otherwise [disconnected] by order,” said Abrahamson in a 2008 presentation at Google’s headquarters.

But if you’re one of those people peering at your colleagues through stacks of folders and unread mail, don’t see this as a license for total disorganization. Some order is necessary. As opposed to condoning absolute messiness which would inhibit productivity altogether, Abrahamson asserts that there can be a happy medium between order and mess leading to more spontaneity and productivity.

When asked in another interview whether there was really such a thing as ‘the perfect mess’ he responded,

“Your mess is perfect when it reaches the point at which, if you spent any more or any less time organizing, you would become inefficient. If you devote all your time to organizing, you won’t get anything done. If you don’t spend any time organizing, the resultant mess bogs you down completely. When you find the ‘sweet spot’ between messiness and order, then you have a perfect mess.”

Abrahamson’s prior book is entitled Change Without Pain: How Managers Can Overcome Initiative Overload, Organizational Chaos, and Employee Burnout. During the 2016 semester he instructed the course “Power and Influence”, which focused on instruction regarding establishing and executing advancement objectives in the workplace.

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