Are You Orbiting the Giant Hairball?

In the midst of a giant hairball is not where you want to be. Gordon MacKenzie makes that case in his book, Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace. Mackenzie’s boss once used the term in a meeting of department heads at Hallmark Cards. His boss said, “This (department) is a giant hairball.” “What a disgusting term!” thought MacKenzie. But he reasoned that there is a time when a hairball doesn’t exist, so there has to be a place from which they come.


He reasoned:

Well, two hairs unite. Then they’re joined by another. And another. And another. Before long, where there was once nothing, this tangled impenetrable mass has begun to form.

Over the course of Hallmark’s history, policies and procedures grew and grew. The more they grew, the bigger the policy manuals became, and the more gravity there was in the giant hairball. The whole organization had become a “tangled impenetrable mass.” And as the bureaucracy grew, creativity diminished.

MacKenzie later cherished working for the one division at Hallmark that retained a loose connection to the “hairball.” But that division was able to orbit around it just far enough away so that they didn’t get tangled up into it. They followed the basic rules, policies, and procedures of the organization, but they stretched and bent them far enough that they were able to retain true creativity and become the most profitable division of Hallmark Cards.

Rules may not always be meant to be broken, but a case can certainly be made that there are times they crush creativity. When things are too restricted, when there is no freedom, when thinking is “inside the box” rather than outside of it, it’s tough to come up with new ideas, it’s difficult for new pathways in the brain to form, it’s hard to make things that are risky.

Here are a few suggestions for avoiding the giant hairball:

  1. Respect the rules of your organization, but don’t let them stifle you. Find loopholes. Look for ways to stretch the rules. Band together with others frustrated by the corporate culture (but do it in a way that brings value to the organization). The people in MacKenzie’s division of Hallmark went on tangents that fueled their creativity, but their boss would, “with his 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.”
  2. Discover ways to become indispensable to your organization. Make your own job secure by learning and doing things no one else can do. Become what Seth Godin calls the “linchpin.” The more value you bring, the more difficult it is for the organization to exist without you. Gordon Mackenzie brought so much value to Hallmark Cards that later in his career he was asked to train new hires in his own creative way.
  3. Don’t let your own tactics and procedures become a new hairball. MacKenzie was once asked to run a seminar for Hallmark’s new creative managers called “The Creative Manager.” He changed the title of the seminar to “Grope,” and used it to train managers to handle the many off-the-wall experiences they would face as supervisors. There was no structured agenda, their was much confusion, but the problem-solving that came out of the workshop was off the charts. Unfortunately, the next two times MacKenzie led the workshop, he just pulled out his old file and ran it again according to the first time he had done it. The results were less than stellar. He had created his own hairball. From there on out he allowed agenda-less, creative problem solving reign.

How do you avoid becoming a part of the giant hairball?


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