Podcast 114: Organizing systems for growth

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This is Podcast 114 and it’s about organizing systems to cope with growth and change. I’m about to start an office organizing project. This small company is growing fast and they’ve increased their office space by a little more than half. And suddenly chaos is busting out all over.

In fact, they’ll probably have to move out of their current space entirely in a few more months because they’ll outgrow it. I don’t know what the new space will be like, so I’ll focus on creating strategies they can use anywhere.

Where did this chaos come from? Part of it is a common problem that most businesses face when they grow past a certain point. This is the problem of formalizing and codifying.

When a company is small, especially if it’s just one person, procedures and methods happen organically and are easily learned by everyone. Mistakes or gaps in information are caught and corrected quickly. Filing systems can be fairly eccentric when only a few people need to use them.

At a certain point in a company’s growth, that simplicity becomes a complication. New people don’t understand the filing system and there are no written guidelines to help them. Work starts piling up because new people need to be trained to do things that previously everyone just seemed to know how to do. That training takes time that hasn’t been budgeted for and during the growth phase, people aren’t likely to have spare time.

In this particular office, many of the cabinets are empty, yet things are piled on desks and tables. No one knows where to put them or who to ask about it. The office manager is now managing a space and population more than twice the size of the previous one so her capacity is maxed out.

It seems like a simple thing, right? Just figure out a spot to put the copier paper and tell everyone. But there are a lot of variables here. Is there any logical space near the copier? If so, is there room in there? If there’s not, can something be moved to make room?

If it’s a cabinet, with doors, how do new people know where the paper is when they can’t easily see it? Is it easy to access? That last question is really important. If something is difficult to put away, people are inclined not to do it.

There’s also the company culture question of whether it’s okay to have things out and visible or they should be put away. This is another issue that gets worse when populations grow. A handful of people creating a few stacks here and there may not bother anyone, but the more people and things and procedures there are, well, the clutter can grow exponentially.

That means decisions and policies have to be set up for how a space is organized and maintained. Ideally, there’s buy in from all those involved. Again, making it as easy to maintain as possible while still achieving the desired uncluttered look is what you aim for.

Responsibility also needs to be assigned for maintaining this look. If you ask everyone to do something, no one will. They’ll all assume someone else will do it. It will probably fall to the office manager to do the maintenance, or to direct specific other people to do it.

In this case, the facilities manager is emphasizing that employees only keep what they truly need and love to have around, but strive to minimize. This office, like many these days, is open plan. That means that everyone sees everyone else’s stuff, all the time. If you have a cubicle you can get away with more clutter since you’re the main one who sees it, but not when you’re sitting in the open.

Whether people realize it or not, visual clutter is distracting and stressful. Almost every time I do a decluttering session with a client, she looks around in wonder and breathes a sigh of relief. She feels calmer. All the stuff we decluttered had become background noise. she saw it but didn’t really see it, so it was hard for her to grasp how much pleasanter the space would be without it.

Ideally, we’ll be able to come up with a clutter level policy that everyone is happy with, so they’re more likely to comply. Just like organizing in a family or a couple, there will be negotiating to do on either side.

The parallel situation for people at home is any big change: new baby, kids going to college, new career, new house, etc. Such changes often throw your organizing systems into chaos. Maybe it’s time for some formalizing or codifying in your home. A simple example is the family chore chart, which lists chores and assigns them to specific people at specific times.

What you can do right now: think about comparing your home to a company that’s growing. Are there places where it would be helpful to have a system to do things, so they stay more in control and create less work for you?