I rank my ideas on a scale of whiteboards used. Let me explain. It’s something our chief technology officer likes to tease me about, but when I was trying to woo him to join the company with a big, new idea, talking it out wasn’t quite working.
“I don’t think I can easily explain this in words,” I said. “But I think I can do it with a whiteboard.”
As I began drawing out my thoughts, it became clear we’d need more whiteboards. By the time the dust had settled, we were six boards deep and he’d heard enough about the vision to take the job.
That scenario pretty much sums up my work process. I have a lot of thoughts, and while it’s easy for me to see the bigger picture and how things connect, it’s often a struggle to succinctly get my ideas across to others. My style brought a unique set of challenges as my company grew, but now, more than ever, I’m glad to work the way I do.
Let’s face it—we’re at a juncture where none of us really feel like we have it all together. Life’s been hard, organization has gone out the window and chaos reigns supreme as households and workplaces collide. Here’s my case for embracing the mess.
There’s No ‘Right’ Way to Think
From the outside, my workspace and my process look cluttered. As the notebooks, scrawled notes and papers pile up on my work-from-home desk, my mess tends to expand to other spaces.
From a young age, most of us are taught there’s a “correct” way of thinking and working. But by overvaluing one approach, we run the risk of losing out on alternate viewpoints.
Linear thinking means solving problems step-by-step in what’s essentially a straight line. Generally, it’s characterized as the norm–even the architecture of the English language requires a linear lens. From having to read left to right, to the structure of subject, verb and object. Lateral thinking, however, is more of an expansion in multiple directions that requires zooming out to a bird’s eye view.
In high school, it was tough to realize linear thinking didn’t come easily to me. Instead, I saw every side of an issue all at the same time. It was tricky to fit my thoughts within the box of linear problem solving. Countless times, I wondered whether I could adjust to something tidier.
But the pandemic has helped me finally accept the way I work. It forced us to re-think so many aspects of our daily lives, including an overhaul of traditional work as we knew it. It has brought me to the conclusion that now is the perfect time for companies to embrace the folks with a messy-desk approach to work.
Creativity Leads to Agility
Countless consulting firms and experts have come to the same conclusion since the pandemic began—to survive and thrive in this new age of work, businesses must be agile. To pivot on a dime, you need to have people who can think outside the box. This is where it’s crucial to have people who can embrace chaos. Indeed, studies have linked a messy approach to creativity, which in turn is linked to resilience in both our personal and professional lives.
Diversity of Thought Is More Than Rhetoric
Our company is focused on making systems-level change, which requires input from people who encounter these systems in all sorts of different ways. Just as we all benefit when there’s diversity at the decision-making table, we also benefit from having a diversity of skills and thought processes. From my experience, bringing together a variety of thinkers helps reduce confirmation bias and avoid groupthink.
We’ve Got Big Problems to Solve
My way of thinking and working made it extraordinarily hard to study for exams in university, but it’s been instrumental in my ability to work on solutions for the nuanced problems my company set out to solve. If these problems were easily fixed by a straightforward, deductive approach, someone would have cracked them by now. When we look at nearly every field of work, we’re all dealing with generation-defining issues—climate change, soil degradation, the pandemic, social unrest—and it’s all going to take fresh eyes and creative thinking to move past them.
It’s been 12 years since I founded my company, and I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to balance my approach with others to make sure we’re productive. It hasn’t been easy. This approach to work—and especially leadership—requires having a team with complementary skills that is patient and understanding.
My executive assistant Karina thinks differently than I do. She’s organized, she has excellent time management skills, she color codes meeting notes—but she is my right-hand-person. She’s worked with me to develop a process that transforms the chaos into something more focused to communicate to the team. Make no mistake, my team thrives because it’s full of diverse thinkers who are all really, really good at what they each do best.
So, here’s my message: Embrace the mess or whatever is true and natural for you. Just do you, and do it well. In my experience, it’s better for everyone to embrace the truest version of themselves and recognize each other’s unique strengths rather than look for uniformity.
Karn Manhas is the CEO and founder of Vancouver-based Terramera, a global agtech leader fusing science, nature and artificial intelligence to transform how food is grown and the economics of agriculture.