Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace

by Gordon MacKenzie

This book is about maintaining creativity within bureaucratic environments. Gordon MacKenzie worked as an artist at Hallmark Cards for 30 years, culminating in a role titled Corporate Paradox.

HAIRBALL. “Every new policy is another hair for the Hairball. Hairs are never taken away, only added. Even frequent reorganizations have failed to remove hairs (people, sometimes; hairs, never). Quite the contrary, each reorganization seems to add a whole new layer of hair. The Hairball grows enormous.”

“With the increase in the Hairball’s mass comes a corresponding increase in the Hairball’s gravity… And, like physical gravity, it is the nature of Corporate Gravity to suck everything into the mass—in this case, into the mass of Corporate Normalcy.”

“The trouble with this is that Corporate Normalcy derives from and is dedicated to past realities and past successes. There is no room in the Hairball of Corporate Normalcy for original thinking or primary creativity. Resynthesizing past successes is the habit of the Hairball.”

ORBIT. “To find Orbit around the corporate Hairball is to find a place of balance where you benefit from the physical, intellectual and philosophical resources of the organization without becoming entombed in the bureaucracy of the institution.”

“Hairball is policy, procedure, conformity, compliance, rigidity and submission to status quo, while Orbiting is originality, rules-breaking, non-conformity, experimentation, and innovation.”

RENEGADES. MacKenzie was hired as a sketch artist for the Editorial department. He did not like the “deference to conformity.” Later he heard about the Contemporary Design department, “Hallmark’s crazy aunt in the west wing… It took me two-and-a-half years to finagle my way in.” The department was led by W. Robert McCloskey.

“Renegades are tricky people to deal with. By definition, they resist being led. McCloskey’s response was to draw on his uncanny talent for leading-without-leading. He understood that renegades go off on tangents; that was just fine with him. Flying off on a tangent is the first step in the process of going into Orbit.”

“So he would let us fly off on our tangents. But, so that we would not go spinning into deep space, where we would be useless to him and to Hallmark, he would, with is own unique brand of gravitational pull, transform our tangents into Orbits, allowing us to travel paths related to the system… but not of the system.”

INVISBLE PRODUCTIVITY. “If we drew a line to represent a creative occurrence, the only portion that would reflect measurable productivity would be a short segment at the end of the line. This line segment is the equivalent of the cow’s time in the barn, hooked up to the milking machine. This is when productivity is tangible, measurable. But the earlier, larger part of the event, when the milk was actually being created, remains invisible.”

“The invisible portion is equivalent to the time the cow spends out in the pasture, seemingly idle, but, in fact, performing the alchemy of transforming grass into milk.”

“A management obsessed with productivity usually has little patience for the quiet time essential to profound creativity. Its dream of dreams is to put the cows on the milking machine 24 hours a day. Crazy? It’s happening in workplaces all over the country: workers being sucked inside-out by corporate milking machines.”

“A healthier alternative is the Orbit of trust that allows time without immediate, concrete evidence of productivity—for the miracle of creativity to occur.”

CREATIVITY IS NONLINEAR. “In their book The Matter Myth, Paul Davies and John Gribbon write: ‘In physics, a linear system is, simply speaking, one in which the whole is equal to the sum of its parts (no more, no less) and in which the sum of a collection of causes produces a corresponding sum of effects… The success of linear methods over the past three centuries has, however, tended to obscure the fact that real systems almost always turn out to be nonlinear at some level. When nonlinearity becomes important, it is no longer possible to proceed by analysis, because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Nonlinear systems can display a rich and complex repertoire of behavior, and do unexpected things—they can, for example, go chaotic. Without nonlinearity, there would be no chaos, because there would be no diversity of possible patterns of behavior on which the intrinsic uncertainty of nature could act.’”

AUTHENTICITY. “How do we become so bogus? Well, our artificiality is caused, in part, by the many teachers who work so hard to instill a professionalism that prizes correctness over authenticity and originality. Flesh-and-blood students persevere the rigors of broadcast school only to emerge with voices as unreal as their pancake make-up. Budding designers, capable of passion, sweat the grind in schools of architecture and graduate to create environments unconnected to the lusciousness of life. Diamonds-in-the-rough enter business schools and come out the other end as so many polished clones addicted to the dehumanizing power of classification and systematization.”

HUMOR WORKSHOP. MacKenzie was promoted to a new Creative Licensing department, a potentially lucrative career move—but he hated it. He pitched an idea for a new department called Humor Workshop to the vice president of the Creative division. The idea was approved with a budget for 12 artists and writers.

He was also allowed to furnish the office with rolltop desks and stained-glass windows rather than sterile cubicles. Accomplishing this through the corporate facilities and purchasing bureaucracy was not without friction. “Any time a bureaucrat (i.e. a custodian of a system) stands between you and something you need or want, your challenge is to help that bureaucrat discover a means, harmonious with the system, to meet your need. It is a strategy that has helped me stay out of many a Hairball.”

After setting up the new office, a snarky corporate executive complained, “You can’t justify the kind of money it must’ve taken to build this Taj Mahal.” MacKenzie notes the irony that the standard mind-numbing furnishings cost 20% more per person than his creative environment. “We had created a richer, more supportive environment for less money.”

CORPORATE PERSONALITY DISORDER. “Unfortunately, while the heart of Hallmark sings the virtues of creativity, the company’s intellect worships the predictability of the status quo and is, thus, adverse [sic] to new ideas. This incongruity creates a common corporate personality disorder: The organization officially lauds the generation of new ideas while covertly subverting the implementation of those same ideas. The consequence is that, on any given day, umpteen people at Hallmark, responding to official corporate invitation, come up with concepts for new methodologies or fresh, original products. Then those ideas, by nature of their newness, are deemed fundamentally unseemly by the same authority conglomerate that asked for them in the first place. This makes for a lot of frustrated ideamongers.”

THE PYRAMID AND THE PLUM TREE. The author reimagines the corporate org chart. “A pyramid is a tomb while a tree is a living organism.” In the plum tree metaphor, corporate resources flow up from the roots; the trunk represents top management providing support; branches are managers supporting the product producers; the fruit represents the product creators.

“Administrative Organization… Function follows organization, e.g. editorial and design are seen as separate functions and are compartmentalized into different departments (the blocks of the pyramid). This results in precise organizational charts and the death of natural collaboration. This is traditional.”

“Holistic Organization… Organization follows function, e.g. editorial and design are recognized as two elements of the same continuum and so remain integrated in a single creative ecology rather than hunkering down in separate departments. This results in an organic dynamism and the enhancement of collaboration. This is radical.”

BEYOND MEASURE. “Only the Renegades in Orbit, removed from the Hairball’s obsession with quantifying everything, are free to reap the unpredictable bounty of the inscrutable creative process. If an organization wishes to benefit from its own creative potential, it must be prepared to value the vagaries of the unmeasurable as well as the certainties of the measurable.” See also The Tyranny of Metrics.

CREATIVE PARADOX. After three years leading the Humor Workshop, MacKeznie’s boss moved him into a vaguely-defined position at the corporate headquarters building—“the Big Grey Place.” He negotiated the title Creative Paradox.

“I happened to be reading an article on Vipassana meditation. In it the author wrote about achieving a state of ‘compassionate emptiness’ … The two words seized me and would not let go. Compassionate emptiness. To me that meant a state of nonjudgmental receiving. I thought: ‘I will try to be in that state when people come to me to recount their burdens.’ From that day on, whenever somebody would come by to pour out their company woes, I would listen. In silence.”

“Although I would sit in silence most of the time during these sessions, there were occasions when verbal intervention seemed appropriate. One of those times would be whenever anyone said: ‘I wish we had more dynamic leadership here.’ I would respond: ‘I wish we had more dynamic following around here. That’s where the real energy of an organization comes from.’”

MacKenzie, Gordon. Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace. Viking Penguin, 1998. Buy From Amazon.com

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