Cluttered Minds, Cluttered Lives, Cluttered Organizations

A recent op-ed on clutter published in the New York Times caught my eye, because it touched upon a broader perspective, noting that de-cluttering may ...

Feb 28, 2015

Clutter is my modus operandi. Not the sort of clutter you may think of — the clutter of stuff — but rather the clutter of obligations, ideas and projects. My roommates can attest to the more physical manifestations of this clutter: the numerous piles, each representing a paper or initiative I am currently pursuing, that appear on my desk and, as of late, around my room. Though many prefer a tidy working space, I enjoy quickly switching between projects and mindsets throughout the day. For me, this is best achieved through maintaining well-sorted piles in different work spaces.
A recent op-ed on clutter published in the New York Times caught my eye, because it touched upon a broader perspective, noting that de-cluttering may not bring the relief intended. More importantly, the article remarked on clutter beyond that of the tangible. Clutter caused by electronic obligations, such as email, Facebook and smartphone applications.
This got me thinking about a more dangerous form of clutter: organizational clutter. This type of clutter involves overcommitment by organizations and a lack of central guidance that is much more dangerous than the forms of individual clutter we typically think of. While I can always take the initiative to reduce the number of piles on my desk or cease my Facebook use, organizational clutter is much harder to defeat because of the lack of ownership that occurs when an organization becomes cluttered.
Working on Student Government and with various Student Interest Groups, committees and initiatives on campus provides me with firsthand perspective on organizational clutter. Oftentimes, groups on campus take on far too many initiatives and objectives for any one moment. A lack of ability to prioritize, and a lack of ability to say no, yields disastrous effects. The organization often ends up with partially or completely unfulfilled objectives or with angry members who feel they bear the brunt of the work.
In my classes on peace-building, I have read about a form of organizational clutter known as mission creep. Though the term originated in describing aspects of UN programs, it is applicable to any organization. Mission creep occurs when a program undergoes an expansion of objectives that is often too rapid for the program to handle.
I am often told that having a clearly defined mission and vision for an organization can limit the potential for organizational clutter or mission creep. But in my experience, mission and vision statements only contribute to organizational clutter because individuals in the organization feel obligated to pursue any project that can be tied back to the mission or individuals use the mission to justify additional projects.
Avoiding and combatting organizational clutter is not as simple as dealing with the clutter in our individual lives. It is up to the leaders of SIGs and initiatives on campus to make sure they are not falling into the trap of an ever-expanding set of objectives that exceeds the pace of growth in involvement and other important resources. While I can still be successful with a cluttered desk, an organization that is mired down with clutter will struggle to have greatest impact possible.
Corey Meyer is a columnist. Email him at
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