On Creativity: Book Review “Orbiting the Giant Hairball”

Orbiting the Giant HairballI think it may have been Jan Höglund who mentioned the late Gordon MacKenzie’s Orbiting the Giant Hairball on Twitter. Lusciously illustrated throughout by the person who would end the last three years of a thirty year career at Hallmark Cards with the title of Creative Paradox, we find an extremely readable treatise on creativity and how to embrace rather than smother it in the corporate world.

Orbiting the Giant Hairball

MacKenzie uses the metaphor of the hairball to describe bureaucratic corporate life; policy, procedure, conformity, compliance, rigidity and submission to the status quo. Orbiting on the other hand relates to originality, rules-breaking, non-conformity, experimentation and innovation. The challenge therefore is how to continue life as a renegade creative within an organisation while remaining “connected to the the spirit of the corporate mission” and without becoming “entombed int he bureaucracy of the organisation.”

Slide credit: Simon Robinson

Slide credit: Simon Robinson

Thus the book in its own whimsical but illuminating manner shines a light on what is known in Complexity Science as the edge of chaos, where creativity emerges from the dynamic interplay of order and chaos in a system. Where many other books on complexity have perhaps failed to fully or even partially captivate the imagination of those in business, Orbiting the Giant Hairball genuinely deserves its status as a cult classic, giving those who are stuck in their own hairballs a rich insight into the mind and imagination of someone who was able to break free. Where I think the books succeeds is in providing us with many anecdotes and stories which illustrate just how restricted our views of reality can sometimes be.

Credit: Andrew Stein, SteinVox

Credit: Andrew Stein, SteinVox

MacKenzie does not pull any punches in his descriptions of the hairball of Hallmark Cards in his discussions on teasing and shaming, the suppression of genius, organisational entropy, tedious team meetings and sales presentations and corporate personality disorders. There is a brilliant passage in which he shares with us some notes he scrawled after being asked by his directors to present some thoughts on how Hallmark could be better organised, and in these notes he compares two different organisational models, one the hierarchy and the other a plum tree, where the organisation is holistic “emphasising the organic and functional relationships between the parts and the whole.” Hierarchies have “asphyxiating effects whereas organic systems have “vitalising results.”

Orbiting the Giant Hairball

Reading Orbiting the Giant Hairball was a delight. It is though perhaps deceptive, in that behind its light and folksy tone lie some deep and profound lessons which could perhaps be easily missed or skipped over by those who are still reluctant to open their own eyes to the ways in which their own organisation is stifling creativity. Creativity is not just about graphic design, and not just about physical product design, but also relates to our approach to solving all the myriad of complex problems we face in our lives. Each and every one of us is already creative, creative in our unique and individual ways. “You have a masterpiece inside you too you know. One unlike any that has ever been created, or ever will.”

Orbiting the Giant Hairball A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace By Gordon MacKenzie Viking Penguin, 1998

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