April 1998

Orbiting the Hairball review

By Gordon MacKenzie
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When two hairs unite, a chain reaction ensues. They attract another hair. And another. And another.

"Before long," explains author Gordon MacKenzie, "where there was once nothing, this tangled impenetrable mass has begun to form." It is this resulting mass of hair this hairball that drives MacKenzie to write: Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving with Grace.

MacKenzie's guide is, in fact, 224 pages of wisdom and artistry that speaks to rank-and-file workers about creativity, and to corporate leaders about the structure and goals of their enterprises.

The message to workers, honed in his 30 years with Hallmark Cards: Break the stranglehold of company convention and commit yourselves to the creative experience if you are to migrate from that tangled web the corporate hairball. Only then can you learn to glide in orbit, tethered by gravity to the hairball but unleashed from conformity and mediocrity.

His message to the corporate leaders: Traditional corporate structure and managers tend to stifle creativity. Hallmark, in fact, recognized MacKenzie's talents, eventually granting him the title, "Creative Paradox." He became the bridge between Hallmark's creative forces and its executives a self-styled corporate holy man. It was a role in which he excelled. MacKenzie writes that as the Creative Paradox, he had no power. Maybe. But he certainly had the perception of power. And that was what counted. Soon, others began to seek his guidance.

For three years, employees outlined their creative ideas to him. For three years, he gave all of them the pronouncement, "Good idea." The effect was dramatic within the institution. A boss, speculating that the Creative Paradox had power, must have thought, "If the Creative Paradox supports the idea, maybe I'd better support it too," surmises MacKenzie.

And so, with the blessing of the Creative Paradox, ideas gained momentum.

"Did you always tell people their ideas were good?" someone later asked him at a conference. "Yes," came his answer.

"Were all the ideas good?" "Almost all." MacKenzie's reasoning: Most companies are peppered with people quick to reject ideas. "I was simply leveling the imbalance . . ." he writes.

The author also gives his view of the classic corporate structure the pyramid. It is a tomb. Better to be a tree, with creators at top, nourished by the roots, or managers.

And what of the hairballs? They are an inescapable part of the "galaxy of corporate symbiosis," as MacKenzie explains through a wonderfully childlike drawing.

Even MacKenzie, in his early years as a design supervisor, "became a little hairball," he observes. Satellites writers and artists orbited around him. And his system, in turn, orbited the big hairball. MacKenzie describes his own ascension into orbit as emerging from the company cocoon and slipping the bonds of the hairball. "Orbiting," he writes, "is following your bliss."

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