professional development

Is your messy desk making you more innovative?

Amantha Imber /

During almost every Innovation Lab training session that we run, when we come to the topic of how our physical environment impacts innovation, someone will pose this question: “Is a messy desk good for creativity?”

And to date, we haven’t had a definitive answer because no such research had been published. So you can probably imagine how excited we were when this study hit our (somewhat cluttered) desks.

Kathleen Vohs and her colleagues from the University of Minnesota set out to explore this very issue – and they came across some interesting answers.

In their first study, they had participants complete a questionnaire on either a messy desk or a clean one. After this task, participants then had the opportunity to donate to charity, and to eat a healthy or unhealthy snack. Those who had sat at a clean desk were much more likely to donate to charity and eat the apple. The researchers suggested that clean desks encourage people to conform – to do what is expected of them, whereas messy desks encourage the opposite.

In a second experiment, participants were again seated at a messy or tidy desk, and asked to generate as many uses for a ping-pong ball as possible. This time, the messy desk people performed much better, producing significantly more creative ideas.

To conclude – assuming your company doesn’t have a ‘clean-desk’ policy – use your desk to serve you based on the type of task you are working on. When you need to be innovative, you should embrace clutter. But when you need to think in a more orderly way, ensure your desk reflects this.

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Amantha Imber

Dr Amantha Imber is the founder of innovation consultancy Inventium. Her latest book, The Innovation Formula, tackles the topic of how organisations can create a culture where innovation thrives.

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