Several years ago I was introduced to a little book titled “Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace”. It’s only available in hardcopy and there is a good reason, it’s filled with little doodles and art from the author, Gordon MacKenzie. In the 224 pages, Gordon describes his journey as a creative in a corporate environment.
It would be unfair to go much further about my own journey without describing the concept of orbiting a hairball. And to do that, I’d like to use Gordon’s explanation (page 33):
Orbiting is responsible creativity: vigorously exploring and operating beyond the Hairball of the corporate mind set, beyond “accepted models, patterns, or standards”—all the while remaining connected to the spirit of the corporate mission.
To find Orbit around a 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.
If you are interested (and it is not for everyone), you can achieve Orbit by finding the personal courage to be genuine and to take the best course of action to get the job done rather than following the pallid path of corporate appropriateness.
To be of optimum value to the corporate endeavor, you must invest enough individuality to counteract the pull of Corporate Gravity, but not so much that you escape that pull altogether. Just enough to stay out of the Hairball.
Through this measured assertion of your own uniqueness, it is possible to establish a dynamic relationship with the Hairball—to Orbit around the institutional mass. If you do this, you make an asset of the gravity in that it becomes a force that keeps you from flying out into the overwhelming nothingness of deep space.
But if you allow that same gravity to suck you into the bureaucratic Hairball, you will find yourself in a different kind of nothingness. The nothingness of a normalcy made stagnant by a compulsion to cling to past successes. The nothingness of the Hairball.
That single page of text has changed my approach to being a creative in a large corporation.
I’ve had the pleasure of serving with more than a dozen companies in roles that span graphic art, software development, tech publishing, consulting, sales and marketing. The companies have ranged in size from 20 people to 400,000+ and crossed many industries. With the exception of a few, most of these companies held a common, yet unspoken tendency toward the safe harbor of normality. Standardized processes, procedures and policies were regarded as the ultimate destination for efficiency and profitability. While some served a purpose in time, most just became a hitching post to which tired and unimaginative people could tie themselves for safety.
I’m not much for hitching posts or safe harbors. Real life is on the trail and open seas. For that reason, I’ve always liked mantras over mission statements. You’ll get more from me if you give me guidelines rather than a set of rules. So in my zeal for creative freedom and unique impact I began to address issues in very different ways. After all, why should I attend weekly cadence calls (a corporate standard) when I could do more by taking that time to be in front of customers? Why even consider the standard messaging and assets coming from our product team when I knew I could produce and deliver better and more customer relevant materials?
But I learned that my approach—the “ask forgiveness rather than permission”, the “stand aside and let me show you how wrong you are” resulted in me and my work totally escaping the gravity of the Hairball and I found myself alone in the nothingness of space.
While I delivered on my goals, I was punished for not “owning it”, which is shorthand for “you didn’t align to our way”, so my accomplishments were ignored. And my approach was not a path to be followed because it led to discipline.
I serve on a worldwide team, so I serve our sales teams, business partners and customers. One desired outcome of my work was to bring others along—to help enable them in a way they could reuse or remix my materials to meet their needs. What I found was my presentations and sales materials proved to be so effective that I quickly became overwhelmed with requests to speak and work with customers. Mostly because I was the only one able to deliver the material I created. I use big pictures and few words in the actual presentation and rely on spending a great deal of time in preparation. Most of our sales reps are overwhelmed (many by Hairball requirements) and can’t, or don’t invest the time needed. So the assets I was creating were unusable by most of our sales teams.
I was so far outside the gravitational pull of the Hairball that much of my efforts were irrelevant.
I learned I needed to come in closer to the Hairball. Not become a part of it, but close enough to have impact. To do so I began looking at the corporate procedures I had mostly dismissed and examined them for creative ways I could leverage the better parts to remain within the spirit of the Hairball. I found I didn’t have to attend every meeting or conference call, but I did attend the most important ones.
I considered “why do we have meetings anyway?” and determined a significant benefit was the communication and awareness of activities among the leadership team. So I began using our corporate social network to document and share my work. This way managers could see what I was doing and my peers could leverage my work as well. I began developing content designed for “remix”. The resulting interaction has been a valued source of insights and feedback, which has resulted in more effective and reusable assets.
But the Hairball constantly changes. Companies like IBM reorganize often to fit the demands of an ever changing marketplace. And once again, IBM is defining a new era of Cognitive Computing. Add in cloud, digital sales and a host of other evolutionary business practices and you’ve got an ever adapting organization. As the organization changes, so must your orbital calculations. For me this has meant remaining flexible and observant to the changing infrastructure of the Hairball. Roles and departments I once counted on for gravitation pull could lose their significance and mass. I’m having to watch for new opportunities and markets that are reaching critical mass and sufficient enough to have the Gravity need for orbiters like me.
So if you feel you’re caught in the Hairball, it’s not too late. If you’re so far from the Hairball that you are irrelevant, there is hope. But in each case, it’s up to you to change—you, not the Hairball. The Hairball is NOT going to easily adapt to fit your style.
Elephants can dance, but they are still elephants. They’re fun dance partners, but watch your distance and mind your toes.
And I would encourage you to get a copy of MacKenzie’s book. It’s engaging and enlightening. It’s one of my most popular giveaway books. For anyone who knows me, you can tell why just by looking at the TOC.