How Is Your Company Like a Giant Hairball?

Gordon MacKenzie has been asking strange questions about creativity for years. IBM, Nabisco, and the FBI want the answers.

Sidebar: Waiter! There's a Hairball in My Soup!

Gordon MacKenzie has a peculiar prescription for succeeding in the corporate world: "Orbit the giant hairball." It's a message that's easier to swallow when you consider his 30-year career as a creative revolutionary at Hallmark, the $3.6 billion company known for its creativity.

And it's one he's broadcasting beyond the cardmaker's Kansas City campus: he self-published his book, Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving with Grace, in 1996, and Viking will republish it in April. MacKenzie describes the work as "a liberation manual for the chronically entangled and the relentlessly oppressed." It's also an apt description of his career at Hallmark.

In the mid-1980s, MacKenzie founded an oasis for creativity -- called the Humor Workshop -- just outside the walls of Hallmark headquarters. "I wrote a one-page, handwritten description of the department," MacKenzie recalls. "Without telling my boss, I called his boss, the vice president of the creative division, and we had lunch. By the end of the meal, the VP was telling me, 'We've got to do this!'"

Eventually MacKenzie shifted his orbit and returned to company headquarters, this time with a title of his own invention: Creative Paradox. "My job was to be loyally subversive," he explains.

In 1991 MacKenzie left Hallmark to hit the road -- consulting on how to bridge the gap between creative chaos and corporate bureaucracy to a blue-chip list of organizations: Microsoft, IBM, Nabisco, the U.S. Marine Corps, the FBI, GTE, Wal-Mart. MacKenzie visited Fast Company to discuss his book, how to orbit a hairball, and what it takes to start a creative revolution.

So, why do you compare a company to a giant hairball?

A hairball is an entangled pattern of behavior. It's bureaucracy, which doesn't allow much space for original thinking and creativity. It's the corporate tendency to rely on past policies, decisions, and processes as a formula for future success.

All of this creates a Gordian knot of corporate normalcy -- an entanglement that grows over time. As its mass increases, so does its gravitational pull. And what does gravity do? It drags things down. But hairballs can be effective. They provide a necessary stability. It's not the job of the hairball to be vibrant, alive, and creative.

What is the orbiter's role?

Orbiting is vibrancy. Orbiting is manifesting your originality. It's pushing the boundaries of ingrained corporate patterns. It's striking a relationship with the corporation so that you can benefit from what it offers -- its physical, intellectual, and philosophical resources -- without being sucked in by its gravitational pull. It's a symbiotic relationship: without the hairball, the orbiter would spiral into space; without the orbiter's creativity and originality, the hairball would be a mass of nothing.

What does it take to be an orbiter?

You have to find your creative genius in such a way that you still have a relationship with concrete, established norms but are not bound by them. In the Humor Workshop, we had 12 people -- with 12 projects and 12 bosses at any one time. In addition to taking assignments, we studied Hallmark's card line for gaps and came up with original product categories -- like holiday yard signs, which became a strong seller.

Where do you begin to find this originality?

By knowing yourself. I know that's not the answer people want to hear -- because that's not easy to do. But that is the answer.

In your last position at Hallmark, you were the "Creative Paradox." What does a Creative Paradox do?

As Creative Paradox, I fantasized that headquarters was like New York City: conflicting endeavors, traffic, lots of people, lots of neighborhoods -- some safe, some dangerous. I was a pushcart vendor, working on the corner, selling without a license. My job was to bring value to people on the street, all the while watching for cops to turn up.

I became a liaison between the chaos of creativity and the discipline of business. I had no job description and a title that made no sense, but people started coming to me with their ideas, and I would listen to those ideas and validate them. When you validate a person, what you're really doing is giving them power -- like a battery charger.

What is the biggest obstacle to creativity?

Attachment to outcome. As soon as you become attached to a specific outcome, you feel compelled to control and manipulate what you're doing. And in the process you shut yourself off to other possibilities.

I got a call from someone who wanted me to lead a workshop on creativity. He needed to tell his management exactly what tools people would come away with. I told him I didn't know. I couldn't give him a promise, because then I'd become attached to an outcome -- which would defeat the purpose of any creative workshop.

It's hard for corporations to understand that creativity is not just about succeeding. It's about experimenting and discovering.

For more information about Orbiting the Giant Hairball, contact Gordon MacKenzie at OpusPocus (913-492-2256).

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