On a recent flight to Chicago I happened to be seated next to the CHRO of a large manufacturing firm. After a few pleasantries, he pulled out Gordon MacKenzie’s now legendary management book, Orbiting The Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace. Asking if I’ve read it, I said I had and suggested that he give it a quick study so we could talk about his impressions. He tore through about half the book in no time and then asked me about myself and my business.
We shared how chaotic 2011 had been for both of us and our disbelief that it’s only June. For him the year had already brought two reorganizations, a divestiture, two new health plans, board sessions on health care reform, second phase deployment of a new HRMS system, expansion into the three new countries and an HR budget and staffing cut. In return I shared my dozens of HR industry briefings for hedge funds and investment firms, workshops for boards and C-suite executives, a few speaking engagements, service provider strategy discussions and a slew of strategic consulting assignments for multi-national firms.
Continuing our conversation, he discussed how mired and reactive he was feeling and that he didn’t have the time or luxury to pause and ensure he was taking his organization and HR function in the right direction. He was constantly surrounded by people and could rarely find a moment to step away from his team and gain some perspective. I discussed how disconnected and isolated I’ve been feeling, having flown well over 100,000 miles already this year and always popping in and out of such a wide variety of conversations and initiatives. I lamented how I’ve been missing so many of my peers and feel I’ve been neglecting my blog and much of the strong HR, leadership and recruiting relationships I had previously established.
Laughing while clinking our plastic cups together in a cheer of mutual respect and sympathy, he held up his book and said, “You’ve basically been orbiting the HR hairball.“
What is the “hairball”?
In his 1997 interview with Fast Company, MacKenzie described the hairball as:
“… 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.”
So what’s the role of the “orbiter”?
“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.”
How do you become an “orbiter”?
“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… 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.”
My new friend returned to his book and would occasionally point to a paragraph, elbow me and say, “Seriously though, this guy has HR nailed.” As our flight prepared to land I turned to reassure him that things would likely get easier for both of us come the summer months. I suggested he start reading some of the great articles and posts that many of you author. I turned him onto some of the industry radio programming and unconferences that have emerged over the past few years.
And finally, I suggested he – hell, all of us – trying focusing less on specific outcomes and instead embrace a few words of wisdom from MacKenzie:
“It’s hard for corporations to understand that creativity is not just about succeeding. It’s about experimenting and discovering.”