Work is a mess

“Work is a mess.” I read these words from Michael Carroll¹ a few years ago while trying to make sense out of nonsense, for which for which my lack of patience is well-known. And although my impatience with exaggeration is also known, it’s not hyperbole to say these words changed my life.

Before reading his book, I thought I’d reach a point where everything was organized and running smoothly – at last.

Yeah… at work.

But these words confirmed something I had long suspected while still hoping it wasn’t true. Work is always messy. Fix one problem, and there’s another around the corner.

And while I’m stating the obvious, it’s truer now.

The demands of work haven’t gone away. They’ve amplified. Some even feel even more erratic or insane. And in this new reality, work is full of contradictions, paradox, and messy emotions, all things our brains really hate.²

So let’s manage our expectations…

It’s going to get weirder. And messier. (Even after the pandemic.)

I said this to my cousin Zack, who left New York City in 2020 for “a few weeks,” and ended up working from his parents’ home for over a year.

“Somehow just knowing things are weird makes it… easier,” Zack said with a laugh and audible sigh.


Labeling the weirdness gives our minds a place to put it. File this under the “weird” category.

While it sounds kooky, it’s also true: just noticing that work is a mess makes it less messy.

And the rules aren’t clear at all.

I discovered this while preparing for a workshop and dusting off my Ground Rules slide. But I dreaded the thought of telling professionals who’d been quarantining while working from home and homeschooling for months how to behave.

“I really do not want to issue ground rules to a group of grown-ups,” I confessed to a small team, in a precious in-person conversation. The mood lightened as they nodded and smiled, as if to say, “That’s right. We are grown-ups.”

Darn right.

So boundaries keep blending while the pressure mounts. And you still have to motivate your team to meet this month’s forecast or revise your marketing plan for the back half.

Yep, in the middle of lunacy.

But we’re grown-ups.

And work is a mess.

I said these words to Kay a few months ago, after her team tripled in size. And because it’s my job, I feigned patience as she moved boxes around a PowerPoint page, figuring out who would report to whom.

“Things will change a dozen times over the next six weeks. And you haven’t even talked with the team yet,” I said with an exaggerated yawn, now bored with the exercise. I nudged her to focus on what she was creating, rather than how she organized.

But she was convinced she had the perfect team structure. It wasn’t messy at all.

Then one of her talented leads left for a new role. Another said he had no interest in managing people. Still another said he was already doing work he wasn’t hired for. Just like that, her plan crumbled.

That was before Covid.

During quarantine, her team continued to march toward pre-lock down deadlines, with open roles absorbed for cost savings. And even though they were short-staffed, her team seemed just large enough to inherit more work – a lot more work.

She called me occasionally to report how crazy things were as strategies continued to pivot. Somewhere along the way, she conceded, “Work is a mess.”

Yet she recently shared that after completing big projects, not one, but two team members told her they had now had extra bandwidth – and could she please give them some more work.

“I wanted to build a high-performing team, “ she said with a tinge of awe in her voice. “And we’re doing it.”

That’s as good as it gets. 

Like maybe ever. 

And there’s the rub. The mess, it seems, is an integral part of the process. So take a deep breath and just keep cleaning up whatever you can from wherever you are, remembering that work is always an endless mess.

¹ Awake at Work by Michael Carroll.
² Egos too…

Photo by Steve Johnson at Unsplash