Survive Workplace Bureaucracy by “Orbiting the Giant Hairball”

Sounds a bit gross, I’ll admit. A giant hairball is not your typical metaphor for the workings of a business. But are you in one? I was! 

In 1996 Gordon MacKenzie, a 30-year veteran creativity manager at Hallmark, wrote his timeless book, Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace. He’d spent his career resisting the gravitational pull of endless corporate controls that can suffocate creative people. 

Death by rules 

Rules are supposed to protect things from going awry, spinning out of control, and turning into chaos. Rules come from bosses, lawyers, auditors, HR, finance, regulators…everywhere. 

For years I worked with creative people who tried to resist the corporate hairball. They’d show me old files on terrific improvement ideas they’d proposed and had rejected. 

“Why do you keep all this stuff?” I asked. 

“Because,” they answered, “one day the same need will come around again and maybe this time I’ll get the okay.” 

By then, I suspect there’ll be way too many hairs in the hairball for that to happen. 

I’m always reading about the frustrations of employees who can’t seem to get corporate leadership to try something new. There’s always a reason why “we’re not ready for that” or “we’ll need to get approval from legal or financial or the VP or Mother Goose” before we can move ahead. 

I talk to small business people who don’t/won’t give social media marketing a chance because they don’t have policies or protections or processes for integrating it into their operations. Those hairballs stand in the way of business of growth.

The way out 

We get up every morning realizing that we have to make our careers work, at least for one more day. We can choose to believe we’re hairball captives or that there is a way to make our creative mark outside the constraints.

Mackenzie gives us an answer: 

“Orbiting is responsible creativity: vigorously exploring and operating beyond the Hairball of the corporate mindset…all the while remaining connected to the spirit of the corporate mission. 

To find Orbit…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….” 

Can you do it? Do you have it in you to figure out how to work within the system without abandoning your desire to introduce new ideas? 

It takes courage and political smarts to forge ahead successfully. Part of orbiting the giant hairball is to understand your ability to counteract the forces of corporate gravitational pull. 

A trial orbit 

Let’s say you have a great new process improvement  idea, but every time you bring it up you’re told that the company isn’t ready. What to do? 

  1. Study all the “rules” that are in your way, learning their origin and who’s invested in them.
  2. Think like a lawyer and uncover where the rule’s soft spots are.
  3. Quietly find people who think your idea would work “if it weren’t for those darn rules.” Educate them about what you’ve uncovered.
  4. Develop a compelling business case that will get management’s attention.
  5. Volunteer to lead an ad hoc, exploratory effort to develop the idea further without exposure to the company.
  6. Engage others in voicing their excitement about the possibilities until the “buzz” makes a “yes” irresistible. 

Stay your course! 

A great career is about balancing what you need for fulfillment at work with what’s expected. Our job is to invest “enough individuality to counteract the pull of Corporate Gravity….Just enough to stay out of the Hairball,” says MacKenzie. 

It’s easy to let our creative selves get caught up in the hairball when we don’t pay attention to conditions around us or fail to ask the right questions. Our careers are one way we leave our mark on the world. I’d rather leave mine orbiting! 

Orbiting the Giant Hairball is available on line as a PDF on some sites when you Google the title. It’s a cool book with amazing illustrations and anecdotes, a wild ride demonstrating the joys of the orbit.

Have you every felt trapped by the corporate hairball? What did you do? I’d love to hear your story!