Chaos to clarity

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Describing what they face as the familiar clutter, mess, chaos, disarray, congestion, roadblocks, or the unique paper salad (one of my all-time favorites) or landscape of piles is a state of disorder that is real for and relative to each and every client I meet.

One person’s chaos is another person’s bliss and vice versa. I will never forget a phone call from a woman who confided that photographs of super tidy kitchen drawers made her extremely uneasy. She was most comfortable with a degree of “stuffedness” that would frustrate or overwhelm someone else.

I appreciate the diversity of and challenges for every person who invites me to enter their home, the bravery it takes to call for help, the transformations that happen within and around them. Everyone has muscles to stretch and new things to experience.

So it will come as little surprise I was filled with intrigue when I was invited to be the guest lecturer for an experimental weekend workshop titled “Chaos to Clarity: Finding Order in a Disorganized World,” at Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (a.k.a. the d.school). The invitation also included an offer to attend and participate in any or all of the workshop. Knowing this was a rare opportunity, I opted for the latter.

I took preparation seriously. I reviewed the comprehensive class outline and other information forwarded my way about the underlying methodologies and vocabulary at the d.school, including the concepts of synthesis, design process, design muscles, and practicing ambiguity. I also reacquainted myself with the work and thinking of David Kelley, founder of the d.school (and the innovative SF design firm, IDEO), by listening to an awesome interview he gave last year on KQED’s Forum. (This is the same radio program on which I was a guest earlier this year ; )

During the interview, Kelley’s description of the multi-disciplinary, human-centered, and empathic approach of design thinking resonated deeply. He spoke about “trying to understand what is really meaningful to people” and how we must challenge our assumptions by being present and experiencing and witnessing what people go through. A gentle applause emitted by my own two hands was audible in my office as I absorbed his words. He echoed the sensitivity inherent in an organizer’s work. Further, he mentioned the importance of learning to try something instead of just talking about it, and that, it turns out, is where the coming days were going to lead.

The workshop is all about building your organization muscles. You’ll practice organizing all sorts of information and objects, so when the time comes for synthesis, you’ll be able to dive right in and start making meaning from the chaos.

After introductions and some warm-up dialogue about organizing, each workshop participant was given an envelope containing a similar but un-identical array of objects akin to what you might find in the junk drawer…of a classroom. Step one was emptying the contents on their desks. They were confronted with a literal mess of stuff, bits of which bounced and rolled across the floor. There’s a messiness to creativity and to organizing, and things usually look and get worse before they’re better.

Participants were instructed to complete a couple of sorting exercises. As they began their explorations, I saw everything from humored curiosity and quiet contemplation to blank stares of temporary paralysis. Those who needed it were coached and encouraged through the hard spots.

Subsequent steps were a series of instructions for sorting and arranging. As they became more familiar with what was physically before them, their confidence increased and their organizing muscles were stretched. Or in more d.school lingo, cultivating ambiguity endurance allowed them to hold steady in the messiness of the journey and explore more deeply, thereby making way for new thinking and connections.

No two arrangements or categorizations were the same and illustrated in real time how unique  our brains, perceptions, and processes are. Our individual experiences, values, and perspectives dictate how we relate things to each other. There is no one way to organize, group, or sort things. All answers are correct.

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Over night, participants were asked to do some organizing at home. These experiences were to provide the basis for organizing a different medium: data.

The next day they were divided into small groups. Participants interviewed their teammates to understand and capture one anothers’ processes, emotions, pain points, and more about their organizing homework.

Post-it® Notes, a d.school creativity diet staple, were the vehicle employed for capturing brief quotes and observations. One can see why these ubiquitous pads of paper are a favorite tool. For the creative process, they are indispensible for all aspects of organizing information, such as ordering, prioritizing, finding patterns/relations between things, identifying what does/not fit, triaging, purging, adjusting, and tidying. Watching the brightly colored squares and rectangles get moved during the teams’ collaborations was a marvelous and dynamic process to behold.

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Mindmapping was the final organizing tool brought out for a drive. This powerful tool is used to get through visual blocks, make thoughts visual and shareable, and to make and illustrate the relations between things. It is encouraged as a forum for letting go and letting the mess happen, because from the mess comes the clarity.

Armed with colored markers and a white board of their own, participants’ maps* evolved straightaway. Some were clean and clear with straight lines while others were cluttered and meandering and bursting with words. This appeared to be the most liberating and fluid exercise of the workshop.

Was it because organizing muscles had been flexed and stretch and they were warmed up? Were they already versed in mind maps? Was it because the instructions were for them to make a map of future dreams and plans?

The mind maps were handwritten directions for participants’ next steps outside this unconventional classroom. After two days of facilitated chaos, there was a great sense of clarity.

P.S. On a personal note, I stretched myself days later by taking a long overdue second stab at mindmapping. It’s been my organizational tool nemesis. As one who likes to maintain a sense of control during her own creative processes, the messiness of the mind map overwhelms me. I am trying to find clarity by making messes of my own.

*The contents of the mind maps produced in the workshop were personal in nature, so I don’t have photographs to share. You can find a many different styles of and tools for creating mind maps online.

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