How to Improve Corporate Creativity…

Ten Points About Orbiting the Giant Hairball

Although I was introduced to the creative mind of the late Gordon MacKenzie when I was consulting to Hallmark Cards in the early 1990’s, it was only a few weeks ago while on vacation that I devoured his book: Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate FoGordon Mackenzie - How to Improve Corporate Creativity...ols Guide to Surviving with Grace.

Orbiting is about one man’s work to help an already hugely creative company become even more so. And while MacKenzie might have been described as somewhat wacky, his approach balances the tension that exists between the need for organizational control and creative expression.

What’s a giant hairball, anyway? It’s an entangled pattern of behavior such as bureaucracy that doesn’t acknowledge or foster creativity and original thinking. As it grows, it creates gravitational pull that drags people down. Because the hairball provides stability and continuity it has benefits. But promoting creativity isn’t one of them.

You and I have a choice. 1. Get mired in the hairball. 2. Spiral into space (aka, get fired or leave). 3. Orbit the hairball by manifesting our own originality and pushing corporate boundaries while benefiting from the physical and intellectual resources the organization offers. Orbiting is the desired place because we’re able to benefit from the organization’s strengths without getting sucked into the bureaucracy.

Here are 10 key points from Orbiting the Giant Hairball.

  1. Controlling people suppress our uniqueness and creativity throughout our educational and work careers. MacKenzie tells a story of visiting a first grade class. He tells the children he’s an artist and then asks the children to raise their hands if they’re artists, too.  All the children raise their hands. He asks the same question of second, third, fourth, fifth and six graders. As he moves up the grades fewer children raise their hands. Authority figures won’t bless your own particular genius. Embrace your own creativity. Be your own authority figure.
  2. The corporate mindset is set to protect and repeat past successes. You have to fight to put yourself into orbit and stay there.
  3. Tangents are where creativity and innovation occur. All tangents don’t pay off, but you need to allow yourself to go off on tangents if you want to be creative and innovative..
  4. Find places where your desires and those of the company overlap. Fight to stay there.
  5. Reject the “I’m so busy” syndrome. Today it seems almost fashionable to talk about our busyness. Some businesses are fostering cultures that reward overwork.  Instead, we should use our skills to master what we do so we get it it done faster and easier than everyone else. Faster and smarter is preferable to longer and harder.
  6. Find the place between complete freedom and complete security that is best for you.
  7. When a bureaucrat, or what MacKenzie calls a “custodian of the status quo,” stands between you and something you need or want, show the bureaucrat a means to meet your need that is consistent with the needs of the system.
  8. We can’t add value by being one of the nay sayers. Listen non-judgmentally and try to be the person who says, “yes.”
  9. Rather than organizing in silos and departments, we should align our organizations into holistic groups where all the needed resources exist. MacKenzie wrote that before organizations started to view themselves as collections of value streams.
  10. Ignore your job description. Job descriptions act as fence posts that keep us in the corral. Paint landscapes instead.


  1. Nice article, Jim! Gordon was the most creative individual I’ve ever met, and I feel privileged to have shared some of his time at Hallmark.

  2. Jim,

    For years I’ve been urging clients and any one else who will listen to liberate their employees by eliminating job descriptions and focus on competency profiles that transcend the old litany of tasks and duties. Job descriptions encourage compliance and conformity, the antithesis of innovation and creativity.

  3. Thanks for this review, Jim. I was struck by the analogy of “orbiting the hairball.” It’s a perfect parallel to my metaphor of the “human rocket” of performance you get when you strike the optimal balance between the “thrusters” (imagination and free will), the “stabilizers” (security and self-esteem), and the “guidance system” (responsibility and accountability). Can’t wait to read his book!

    1. Les, during our webinar on your new book, I thought just that. BTW, for those reading this who might not know about Les’ book, it’s “Getting to the Heart of Employee Engagement: The Power anbd Purpose of Imagination and Free Will in the Workplace.” I think it’s the best book on the subject of engagement. See my earlier review in a previous blog. JCS

  4. It is so real I was only a third of the way through his story and knew where it was going. Just beat it out of you.


  5. I interviewed Gordon in the ’80s or ’90s when computers were becoming it a skill to master for creative and innovate art and product ideas. Greatly enjoyed he conversation. I think I’m going to like this book. Thanks for introducing it, Jim.

  6. As a creative person in a corporate world, I am fortunate to be recognized and applauded and sought for my creativity – but that doesn’t mean I don’t also get mired in the hairball myself now and then. I have to remind myself freqently that my real job is to – as you colorfully express it – orbit the hairball – so thanks for the visual! That will help me on those days when the hair seems to be winning.

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