Orbiting the Giant Hairball
by Gordon MacKenzie
Recommended for: Change agents, creative types stuck in the stifling corporate culture and what you can do about it, storytellers
This book was given to me my by my friend and agile coach, Jamie Gillis, who considers this book a game changer for his life.
This might be one of the most entertaining books I’ve ever read. MacKenzie was an artist at Hallmark for several decades and the pages are covered in doodles. Its almost like reading someone’s sketch book! MacKenzie is a master storyteller. This book inspired me to be improve this skill.
MacKenzie calls corporate culture a giant hairball. He likens policies, procedures, and decisions made by a corporation as individual hairs which when added over the lifetime of the company, becomes an enormous hairball. One orbits the hairball by latching on to the corporate values that resonate with you and use this to fuel your creativity.
Some of my top take-aways and favorite parts of the book:
- As is the world of physics, so too in the corporate world: the gravitational pull a body exerts increases as the mass of that body increases. Like physical gravity it is the nature of corporate gravity to suck everything into the mass– the mass of corporate normalcy.
- The ghosts of past successes outvote original thinking.
- Some people try to escape a giant hairball by going to another company, but find the company is a hairball just like the one they left.
- The whole of reality is too much for the conscious mind to grasp. We can only comprehend a slice. So too with civilization and companies. These realities are imposed on the worker. This creates a cocoon that gives us a sense of emotional security through a connection of shared belief. But its also a shroud that binds and cripples us as badly as the ancient practice of binding Chinese women’s feet.
- Hypnotizing a chicken. I had never heard of this before and I’ve been around chickens much of my life. He says when we join a company, that is what we are doing. Our face is pushed down to the line. The company line says, “This is our history. This is our philosophy. These are our procedures. These are our politics. This is simply the way we are.” What we need to do when we are being pushed down to the line is to find the goals of the organization that touch your heart. And release your passion to follow those goals.
- When a corporation prizes those who heroically overwork themselves in stress filled jobs, the company is telling others: make your job difficult, stretch yourself thin, stress yourself out, and eventually you too may be honored with executive approval. If you desire the blessings of the Mighty Corporate Fathers: work longer hours than is sensible, take on more responsibility than is sensible, make your job harder than is sensible. Do this and your sacrifices will be celebrated and your worth confirmed. This is seductive and plays into the old illusion that if we just work hard enough, and if we just work long enough we will finally be found valuable, be found lovable, and find security. If we fall for this seduction, quality of life erodes.
- He described job descriptions like boxes. People are not allowed to step into each other’s boxes. Instead he says we should be performing like dancers. I like this analogy.
- Mandatory Fun- the force feeding of some cockeyed activity to a captive audience with intent to generate joviality. These don’t work. Instead, it generates discomfort that everyone feels but no one acknowledges.
- Any time a bureaucrat (a custodian of the system) stands between you and something you want or need, your challenge is to help that bureaucrat discover the means harmonious with the system to meet your need. I like this strategy!!
- He talked about organizations as mechanistic (and asphyxiating) versus organic (and vitalizing). I’ve often used these same descriptors for traditional management thinking.
- In the end, he finally came to the conclusion that it would be better to stop trying to change the hairball but instead offer to help those who want a fuller more original work experience.
- Compassionate emptiness– the state we need to enter when people come to us with their burdens. Stop trying to fix people. People will leave feeling unheard and you will feel a sense of helplessness. When someone comes to you, listen in silence. Imagine yourself being an empty vessel existing only to receive as fully as possible and without judgment. I absolutely love this!
MacKenzie and I have drawn a lot of the same conclusions about management and it was refreshing to see his take on it. I’ve often called corporate systems giant balls of tangled yarn. A giant hairball is also fitting.
Though enlightening, his advice is a coping strategy rather than an antidote. I can appreciate this tactic for those who have grown tired of fighting the power, though I find it sad that he has drawn this conclusion and suggests others do the same. I don’t see the problem as a corporate problem. Its a management problem. Companies, no matter how big or small, are creating hairballs all the time. We shouldn’t expect our employees to just orbit, otherwise our company is doomed. The solution is stop making (and reduce) the hairball!!
The book can be bought here.