Why is it so hard for people -- and organizations -- to throw things out? I've been thinking about this question since our offices moved a few weeks back. We had been in the same place for the past ten years, and I had to complete the daunting task of going through all of my drawers and cabinets and bookshelves to decide what was worth keeping and what was not.
The process felt like an archeological dig, as I went through layers of files, presentations, notes, schedules, reports, and accumulated debris. It would have been comical if it weren't so much work: Why was I saving the instruction manual for the Palm Pilot that I last used six years ago? Why did I keep the acetates for dozens of presentations that would never again see an overhead projector? Or those conference binders from twenty years ago? Or that box of old, unsorted files from the last time we moved?
Of course, there are good explanations -- or at least rationalizations -- for why all of this material had accumulated. In some cases, I felt that my hoarded items had unique value and could be leveraged in the future, or they reminded me of a great project. With other materials, I may have intended to sort through them and then never gotten around to it. And on a deeper psychological level, I just didn't want to let anything go.
Moving offices was an obligatory catalyst for cleaning house and overcoming these barriers. I tackled the clutter with one rule: If I haven't looked at this material in the past ten years, then I probably won't need it for the next ten years. With that criterion alone, hundreds of pounds of debris hit the waste bin. And while it was painful at first to see my treasured acetates and conference binders disappear, eventually I felt liberated and de-cluttered. With a little hard work, I had simplified my life.
Although we don't think of it this way, most organizations are pack rats, just like me. They accumulate things over time that eventually lose value, take up space, and make it hard for them to move quickly. Some of these are physical goods -- inventory, facilities, equipment, sales collateral, etc. Some are processes that just keep going long beyond their useful purpose. Organizations also have a hard time letting go of customers, even when those customers are no longer profitable. And although it may sound harsh, organizations also accumulate people whose skills no longer fit what is needed.
Jack Welch understood this dynamic. He used to compare GE to a big old house that accumulated lots of junk in the attic that needed to be periodically cleaned out. But while this is easy to say, it's a hard thing to do. After all, organizations are made up of hundreds or thousands of people who have all the same reasons as I do for not getting rid of clutter: "We might need it later." "There's no time to sort this out." "I'm attached to this product/customer/process/person." In other words, the complexity that is caused by accumulated clutter in organizations is largely a psychological and very human phenomenon.
Because of these dynamics, de-cluttering an organization -- or your part of it -- needs the same kind of jolt that forced me to clean up my office. No, you don't have to literally move. But you do have to identify where your business -- or your unit, function, or team -- needs to "move" in order to be exceptionally successful. This will give you and your colleagues the motivation to get rid of the clutter that's slowing you down. For example, the head of a financial services firm recently challenged his team to increase their face-time with customers by 10%. This "move" forced them to examine what they should stop doing, how they could streamline work, how they could improve the collaboration between the customer-facing teams and the back office, and more. Without this kind of obligatory demand it's a lot easier to let the clutter continue to accumulate -- until it might be too late to get moving.
What's been your experience with reducing organizational clutter?
Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online