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Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving with Grace

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Creativity is crucial to business success. But too often, even the most innovative organization quickly becomes a "giant hairball"--a tangled, impenetrable mass of rules, traditions, and systems, all based on what worked in the past--that exercises an inexorable pull into mediocrity. Gordon McKenzie worked at Hallmark Cards for thirty years, many of which he spent inspiring his colleagues to slip the bonds of Corporate Normalcy and rise to orbit--to a mode of dreaming, daring and doing above and beyond the rubber-stamp confines of the administrative mind-set. In his deeply funny book, exuberantly illustrated in full color, he shares the story of his own professional evolution, together with lessons on awakening and fostering creative genius.Originally self-published and already a business "cult classic", this personally empowering and entertaining look at the intersection between human creativity and the bottom line is now widely available to bookstores. It will be a must-read for any manager looking for new ways to invigorate employees, and any professional who wants to achieve his or her best, most self-expressive, most creative and fulfilling work.

224 pages, Hardcover

First published November 1, 1996

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About the author

Gordon MacKenzie

27 books31 followers
Gordon MacKenzie is an artist and cartoonist. After working for Hallmark Cards, he started to give workshops and tutorials centered on maintaining creativity in the corporate world. His workshops were further developed into his book Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving with Grace.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 457 reviews
Profile Image for Julie.
82 reviews1 follower
July 21, 2013
I was on a webinar for work a little over a week ago and Sally Jewell the Secretary of Interior recommended this book. More than a little curious as to why the Secretary of Interior was recommending a book with "hairball" in the title, I went straight to Amazon and bought a copy for myself. After reading this I hope with all sincerity that Jewell believes in the creativity that MacKenzie espouses in this book because the Federal Government is surely one of the biggest, knotted up "hairballs" of all time! I was touched by many things in this book but one struck me the most was MacKenzie's proposal that we ought not be modeling our workplaces off of a pyramid as is so common everywhere but his model of a plum tree really stands out as a better paradigm that we ought to be considering. As people move up the corporate or government ladder, position and chain of command seem to take precedence over team and productivity and creating a product that we can all be proud of. It is a lot less about support from management but more about "respect me" because of where I am on the totem pole. I am not a "typical" manager in government and this book was very validating to me.
February 8, 2016
Orbiting the Giant Hairball is a life-changer for majority of its readers. That is why we made an animated review and summary of this great book. Check it out on YT below!

Here's the transcript:

1. Where did all the creative geniuses go?

When Gordon Mackenzie visited grade school students for a workshop on creativity, he asked "how many artists are there in the room? would you please raise your hands?"

The pattern of hand-raising never varied:

1st graders leapt from their chairs en mass, eager hands trying to reach the ceiling. Every child was an artist
For 2nd graders, only half the kids raised hands, shoulder high, no higher.
And for 3rd graders, at best 10 out of 30 kids would raise a hand. Tentatively. Self-consciously

And this mindset pattern continues when these same kids move to college, and then to corporate work. What's happeningjjjjj is clear: Our society is participating in the widespread suppressionhjj of creative genius.

Reviving this creative genius, particularly inside the corporate world, is the focus of Gordon Mackenzie's beautifully illustrated book: Orbiting The Giant Hairball, A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving with Grace.

which will be the topic of our video

2. What is creative genius and why is it important?

Our society is suppressing creative genius, slowly but surely. But first, we have to ask the question: what is creative genius, and why is it so important?

Well, you can consider CREATIVE GENIUS as the fountainhead of originality. It fires our compulsion to evolve. inspires us to challenge norms. It's about flying to new heights on untested wings. It is amorphous, magical, unmeasurable, unpredictable. And it's important, as all the groundbreaking innovations of the past century that you can name, from the steam engine, to the iPad pro, is the fruit of someone's creative genius.

3. So if creative genius is so important, why are our schools and society trying to suppress it? Well for starters, killing creativity has not really been intentional; but as old as civilization, the suppression of creative genius is clear as day. The world tyrannized Galileo into recanting the fruits of his own scientific genius. It handed Socrates a cup of hemlock, put a match to Joan of Arc, and fomented the crucifixion of Christ. As old as the human civilization, the pressure is on: to Be Normal. No wonder those 3rd graders don't want to see themselves as creative geniuses, it's not normal, it's weird, it's different.

More so when those kids finally move on to work at a corporation, where rules, procedures, and systems are necessary to hold the whole organization together. In a corporation, being normal and following rules, is not only suggested, it is required!

4. How do we revive this creative genius? The Giant Hairball analogy and the Norm

So the question is: how do we revive our creative genius in a corporate setting where norm is a king?

To answer this, let's first imagine our corporation as a hairball, yes, a hairball. A ginormous hairball, an entangled mass of hair; with every strand representing a corporate policy, a red tape, a standard procedure.

In the beginning, there was no hairball. The company was just a 'start-up', and the founder made business decisions based on his own intuition, based on his own creative genius.

"My gut tellls me it would be most effective if I did this this way. And it would make sense to do that that way", said the founder

This and that. A founder's first business decisions are also the first few strands of the hairball

Years pass and the company's founder and thousands of employees after him have been making business decision after business decision, creating procedures, generating policies, putting up systems; adding countless hairs to the Hairball;

When the hairball reaches a certain size, what's NORMAL for the corporation is defined, giving birth to what we can call the corporate norm, or simply: the NORM The Norm is the company's success formula, its essence. The NORM is the established guidelines, techniques, methods, systems, processes, and procedures that your company has been implementing for years, and the Norm is necessary to keep the Hairball, the organization, from falling apart.

The problem is that the NORM is derived from past realities and past successes; As an effect, no room for original thinking or creativity is left. Resynthesizing only past successes is the habit of the Norm, where the ghost of an outdated reality outvote original thinking.

5. Corporate Gravity.

Now, as is in the world of physics, with the increase in the Hairball's mass comes a corresponding increase in its gravity: which we can call Corporate Gravity. This Corporate Gravity sucks everything into the mass of the hairball, and every employee, whether new or experienced, feels this Gravity's constant pull. tugging them towards the tangle of the Norm

Many employees succumb to the pull of this relentless gravity. Suspended in the grey sameness of the institution's bowels for years, they are the ones who sometimes find themselves asking "what year is it again?"

Others, in their attempt to avoid the limbo of the Hairball, escape to other endeavors - often, ironically, to other Hairballs.

But there are few who manage to actively engage the opportunities their organization presents without being sucked into the hairball. they accomplish this feat through Orbiting.

6. Reviving the Creative Genius
To tap the ability to create, and revive your creative genius, you must soar into the thin air of the Hairball's stratosphere where it's possible to create, to innovate.

You must orbit the hairball. vigorously and actively exploring beyond the confines of the Norm, beyond accepted models, patterns, and standards. while still being tugged by the pull of Corporate Gravity, allowing you to still remain connected to the spirit of the corporate mission.

To orbit is to find a place of balance where you benefit from the resources of the organization without being entombed in its bureaucracy.

You must invest enough of your creative genius to counteract the pull of Corporate Gravity and prevent yourself from being sucked into the Hairball's NORM, but not so much that you escape that pull altogether and fly out into the overwhelming nothingness of deep space.

So, how do you orbit your company's hairball?

This, of course, is different for every company you're in. And launching into Orbit is a long process that takes conscious effort for it to happen. Like a rocket launching into space, it needs energy, in the form of mastery of your own work, and the courage to veer away from what you're used to doing and to tap your own inner creative genius to introduce change.

To do this, there are three things you can start with. First, you can read the full book of Gordon Mackenzie, where he beautifully illustrates several anecdotes and examples on how you can start launching into orbit.

Second, you can subscribe to this channel, where we will feature several of those anecdotes in an easy-to-digest fashion, plus other ideas to inspire you to realize how you can Orbit.

Finally, the mere knowledge and familiarity of this metaphor: of you Orbiting the Hairball, gently exploring the space where you can create while still being held by your company's gravity, is a powerful tool to make you realize your own power to tap your individuality, your creative genius to introduce fresh change to your own organization.

Profile Image for Richard Newton.
Author 26 books564 followers
April 9, 2017
I mostly enjoyed this book, and wavered between 3 and 4 stars - perhaps on another day I would have given it 4. Today it got 3.

The book describes MacKenzie's advice on how to stay creative in a large corporation. It does from time to time descend to triteness - especially towards the end, but mostly is good advice wrapped up in a stylish and quirky looking book. The first two-thirds of the book is the best. But it is deceptively short and not much effort to read from end to end. MacKenzie provides a mishmash of interesting ideas that I have not seen before, along with some common wisdoms on creativity. The style is one of storytelling, which makes it an easy read.

A minor criticism is that MacKenzie bases all of his advice from his 30 years of experience in one company (Hallmark). The advice may not apply to every firm, but then I have worked with dozens of firms and most of them could have used this advice. Also some aspects of the book seem a little dated, but this is mostly specific examples. I feel the conclusions are still largely relevant. Some European readers may find the writing style a little nauseating in a few parts of the book. These are minor criticisms.

What would have been interested would be to understand why MacKenzie worked at Hallmark for so long. Many with a strong creative urge would simply have left corporate life, but he never chose to do this. He hints at why, but never says it outright. One reason may be simply that Hallmark evidently valued him and gave him a lot of freedom to be creative. Something not all firms would have done. I think this could be have been interesting for anyone who feels their creativity is inhibited by their job.

If you are interested in either surviving corporate life and retaining your creativity, or trying to engender creativity in a business, you could do a lot worse than read this short book.
Profile Image for Daryl.
563 reviews5 followers
June 26, 2017
A colleague recommended this one as a business type book that isn't the type to make you want to stick a fork in your eye (that may not have been his precise wording). He reads lots of business books, and I had been bemoaning how much I dislike reading them in general, though had been wading through several at the time. I decided to give it a whirl.

It's mostly pretty annoying. The author styles himself sort of a guru, which is annoying out of the gate, but then he also just writes really inconsistently. One chapter will be a nice little meditation on an event that shaped the way he navigated corporate infrastructure and another will be a a weird self-congratulatory description of a way in which he seemed to think he was pioneering by being (what read to me as) patronizing to his coworkers or workshop attendees, and then just kind of stopping in what feels like the middle.

I did dog-ear a few pages, but on the whole, it felt like sort of a how-to for being a self-styled guru who actually is an annoying crank. If I had to work with this guy or attend one of his workshops, I think my eyes would fall out from all the rolling. I would probably be tempted in any case to stick a fork in my eye.
Profile Image for Jon.
Author 33 books2,161 followers
March 1, 2021
This book saved my life at the first massive corporation I worked for. It’s gorgeous, actionable and the kind of writing I aspire to.
Profile Image for Howard.
70 reviews2 followers
June 18, 2009
I can't imagine that anything like corporations existed two hundred years ago. The human race would have died out because we wouldn't have gotten anything done. Now we have them and the processes and paperwork associated with every corporate action threaten to drag human evolution to a lurching stop. The saving grace for humanity are those clever individuals who manage to essentially follow the processes (though, with a little less paper work) yet get things done and have time to develop themselves personally and think of how to make the world a better place. This book is a collection of stories of one clever individual who did a pretty good job at that.

The processes and the hierarchy and such represent the hairball - an entangled mass from which no sense can be made. Those stuck in the hairball keep the corporation together and consistent, but don't actually get anything useful done. Those who reject the hairball completely launch from its surface, like a projectile fired from a cannon, which represent those people who can't handle the corporation and end up leaving or being fired. There is, however, the minority - those that manage to still work in the confines of the corporation's rules and regulations, yet somehow still enjoy their job and get great things done. These are the people who are in orbit of the hairball. It's a tedious job - obstacles are ever trying to pull you in closer to the hairball or send you screaming into space. But, with some advice, you too have the potential to enjoy your corporate job, get things done, and even get noticed.

I've never worked directly for a large corporation. I hope I never do. But, even now, my company contracts with a large corporation. While I don't feel the pain of being pulled into the hairball, I understand what it must be like for the people working there. These people need all the help they can get - I think helping the people I work with orbit their own hairball is a service worth providing.
Profile Image for Grace Cockrell.
14 reviews
February 22, 2022
Inspiring but the fluffy feel good is awfully repetitive. I do, however, believe it holds a solid message about unlocking progress through creativity in a cooperate world.

Read it if you need something quick but it’s not mind blowing
Profile Image for Lexi.
169 reviews7 followers
October 28, 2018
I think this is the kind of book that would be read best in small pieces and when you are in a corporate environment. I did neither of those things. I however still found valuable advice and enjoyed the format and illustrations. I liked especially the ideas on harmfulness of mandatory fun and the importance of compassionate listening without trying to fix things.
Profile Image for Amanda.
10 reviews7 followers
May 19, 2010

Some gems: "Same thing happens in the world of people. Many of us choose security over freedom to such an extreme that we confine ourselves and profoundly limit our experience of life. ... Maximum safety, minimum existence."

"Desperate, I turned to fantasy and conjured a make-believe department that would be ideal to me: a creative-friendly oasis where it would be possible to thumb one's nose at empire building, ass covering, and all those other deterrents to fashioning vigorous concepts and fresh products."

"Masks have real social value in that they allow you privacy and space in an often brutal world. But there is a price you pay for wearing a mask. Masks cause little deaths--little soul deaths. When you wear a mask, nobody (not even you) gets to find out who you really are. When you wear a mask, nobody (not even you) gets to find out what you really need. And when you wear a mask, nobody (not even you) gets to find out what you really have to offer."


"Holistic organization: form follows function (i.e. organization follows function) eg: Editorial and design are recognized as two elements of the same continuum and so remain integrated in a single ecology rather than hunkering down in separate departments. This results in an organic dynamism and the enhancement of collaboration."
Profile Image for Jeremy.
722 reviews14 followers
September 25, 2009
This book was entertaining but I didn't find it very practically useful. The very creative artist captivates the reader with colorful illustration, analogies, and anecdotes from his 30 years at Hallmark. Typically, the teaching moment comes with one or two sentences at the end of each mini-chapter. Most consist of basic principles that we all know, and absent of any practical suggestions of application beyond his own life stories, which are definitely unique enough to be unrepeatable.

One chapter is one sentence: "Orville Wright didn't have a pilot's license". I get the point, but what do you do with that? This is one of those books that most people read and say, man that was awesome and creative, not realizing that you only walked away with about three practical ideas.

But it is a fun read, if that's what you're looking for.
Profile Image for Samantha Nowatzke.
570 reviews2 followers
January 3, 2021
I really appreciate the messaging of this book that creativity is stifled when we're young and it would be of great benefit for individuals and corporations to encourage and create environments where creativity is rewarded. It would make for more fulfilling careers, higher engagement and arguably the chance for more profitability as well. It would have been nice to hear more specific examples of how the author was able to take his career in the direction he did. It's easier to understand how someone who was already successful was able to go off in that direction but it would have been nice to learn more about some practical examples of how the "average" mid-level employee might be able to do some of the same.
Profile Image for Tami Traylor.
26 reviews1 follower
November 12, 2011
I read this back in my cubicle days, stuck in the middle of the "hairball", as McKenzie puts it, of a huge government organization that neither understood nor embraced the creative mind. I saw it as my survival guide, helping me, a lone right-brainer, in a kingdom of left-brained knowledge workers, to navigate my way out of the labyrinthine corporate structure and out onto the fringe of the organization where there was some room to breathe.
This book should be required reading for anyone in a management position. It is small, beautifully designed, illustrated, and engaging without being too much to digest, perfect for the PowerPoint poisoned denizens of cubedom.
Profile Image for Martin Dunn.
1 review2 followers
November 24, 2014
One of the bet books ever written on creativity and enlightenment. Inspiring and funny! Really all managers should read this and all employees too!
I will read this again and again.
Profile Image for Vicki Johnson.
37 reviews
March 21, 2020
Gordon MacKenzie is so cleverly innovative. His descriptions of his actions at work were hilarious. It was easy to see why he drove management a little crazy. But I loved his approach to problems and his willingness to assume authority when there was a vaccum.
4 reviews1 follower
May 24, 2020
Illustrated in exuberant colours, this book imparts more than lessons on awakening and fostering creative genius, but also how to fight conformity and to stand out in the face of bureaucratic and organisational mediocrity.

A delightful piece!
May 27, 2021
I thought this book was going to be weird because of the title, but I had to read it for school so I read it anyway. I really like this book. It had a lot of good advice about being yourself and not conforming to society. MacKenzie uses his own experiences, and lots of metaphors, to tell you his journey and inspire you on yours.
Profile Image for John Majors.
Author 1 book15 followers
October 17, 2017
Corporations prosper when creatives are able to transcend the dreary malaise of mind numbing beurachracy - i.e. orbit the hairball - and keep their creative energies fresh and relevant. Lots of interesting stories here to fuel creativity and permission to orbit.
Profile Image for Tess.
206 reviews1 follower
June 22, 2019
I absolutely loved this book—I think it's one of the best books on corporate life out there. It was recommended to me as a resource for how to manage "creative people," and certainly it's relevant for that. But it's relevant more generally to exactly what the subtitle says: "A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving with Grace."

In our culture, it often feels like there are two options in life: live the hated Office Space cubicle life, soul-suckingly miserable every day. Or "do what you love," meaning shirk all responsibilities and go be a professional artist / musician / MLM leggings salesperson / whatever. These choices are positioned as being mutually exclusive, too. I love that in this book, Mr. Mackenzie delves into how to best use your time at a big corporation, where you can benefit from the resources and security of the company while actually making an impact as well. So, it's kind of a happy medium: bucking the typical exercise of trying to cram your soul ENTIRELY into a company's OKRs while not flitting off to shirk all responsibility, either. I found myself saying out loud, "This is exactly what I've tried to do and maybe is why I can spend so long at one company, always hearing others say 'How are you so zen?'" [Full disclosure: I'm not exactly 'zen.' But I don't lose sleep over work unless there's an extremely bad situation going on.]

If I were to write a sequel to this in which I take it one step farther, I would talk about how it's okay to just work your job, do your best, and not (gasp) have it be the mainstay of your very identity as a human. It's work! It's okay for work to be work. The less you stress about linking your identity so tightly to it, the more you can clock out on nights and weekends and enjoy the HECK out of your actual life (and, tbh, hate your job less too when you're not sinking so much pressure into it).
Profile Image for Jeff Paciolla.
7 reviews
November 6, 2015
I read this book as an unintentional recommendation by a hiring manager I interviewed with. Being at a crossroads myself professionally this was the perfect timing for a book of this nature to come into my life. I recommend to everyone to read this and take its message completely to heart. While I get that many people may think the ideas in this book are way too far fetched to actually be possible; it should not stop you from believing in the message and working on yourself to try and figure out how to work creatively and step outside the corporate constraints so often placed upon all of us at least once in our career. I also believe that this book will make me a better leader when I do land on my feet again and will enable me to better understand the people I work for and the people that work for me, all the while allowing creative growth for everyone. I cant recommend this book enough!!!!
Profile Image for Andrew.
218 reviews22 followers
October 1, 2017
I borrowed this book from the library, and when I cracked it open my first thought was that someone had vandalized it by scribbling all over it. After thumbing through multiple pages, it slowly dawned on me that this is not your typical business book - and the page layouts (complete with scribbles) reflected that. In a way, it felt like what the result would be if Dr. Seuss decided to write a book on working in a corporation. The content is insightful and thought provoking, but by far what makes this book stand out is its whimsical presentation - it's worth reading for that alone. Links to a few memorable quotes below:

On the nature of Infinite Reality

On being fully free to create

Profile Image for Jim Dooley.
790 reviews40 followers
May 19, 2013
This is an essential book for the creative soul functioning in the corporate world. It is quite literally a survival guide consisting of the most gentle, humorous and down-to-earth stories (almost fables) that enhance understanding while they entertain. Even the layout of the book transcends the anticipated format of such a work. I laughed out loud many times, and I've kept it within easy reach to find meaning in business decisions that I don't always understand.

Those with an artistic temperament CAN make it in corporate society. You just have to be careful not to skid too far out of orbit when you're establishing your path. This one had a profound impact on me, and I highly recommend it to those who feel a little out of step with what's going on...and who can't quite figure out why.
323 reviews1 follower
April 25, 2014
While some parts certainly resonated--corporate-mandated fun for example--it didn't work for me. In any think-outside-the-box kind of book like this, I always get the sense that the author thinks he knows what is best for everyone, and that everyone's motivation must be to succeed at the highest level. Everyone's ambitions aren't the same though, and everyone has different levels of risk tolerance.

The other issue is that the book makes it sound like most business problems can be solved with the right metaphor. Granted, the president of my former employer was a *master* of analogy, and I was continually impressed at his ability to invoke them and get people to understand his views. I think he was only able to do this because business acumen flowed through his veins, though. Gordon MacKenzie probably had that too, but he kind of sweeps that under the rug.
Profile Image for Ryan.
19 reviews
December 23, 2016
Described as the "corporate fools guide to surviving with grace," Hairball is series of short stories about how Gordon MacKenzie survived as an eccentric creative within the bureaucracy of Hallmark company. MacKenzie uses each story as a parable to distill strategies that others can use to maintain their creative bent in a world of corporate "grey." Throughout he ghosts some of the absurdities of placing bureaucratic controls on the engine of innovation with quips like, "Orville Wright did not have a pilot's license." (My favorite) Keeping with the theme of creativity, the book has the stock of a miniature coffee table art book and is adorned with childlike artistic drawings throughout. A recommended quick read for managers and corporate drones looking for strategies to get their ideas off the ground in the face of "entropy."
Profile Image for Matt Soderstrum.
66 reviews1 follower
May 30, 2014
I found this book very entertaining and incredibly thought provoking. Mackenzie writes about creativity - specifically creativity within the confines of the corporate world. Truly, the format of this book is one of the most creative expressions I have ever read. This book really causes one to question the rules and systems we have in place in our world. These rules and systems stifle creativity - or at least make it difficult.

Mackenzie closes his book with the following: "You have a masterpiece inside you too, you know. One unlike any that has ever been created, or ever will be. And remember: If you go to your grave without painting your masterpiece, it will not get painted. No one else can paint it. Only you."

What is my masterpiece? What is your masterpiece? Let's get painting!
Profile Image for Lisa Dowell.
4 reviews6 followers
October 18, 2014
This book, not only is this a funny, engaging and creative book - it really does paint an accurate picture of the challenge many face in attempting to create and drive change in a giant organizational "hairball". It serves as a guide in finding ones niche within an organization -without sacrificing your soul- in a way that can lead to success and happiness at work (the "orbiting" part).
Profile Image for Steven Burke.
Author 6 books55 followers
April 28, 2010
This is a fantastic read for anyone who leads or manages. I would also recommend this for anyone who is trapped in the perverbial corporate hairball.
Profile Image for Kellie.
35 reviews2 followers
May 15, 2014
Some of it was just meh, but some of it was really good. A quick, easy read that can provide some good insight.
Profile Image for Michael Mullady.
157 reviews
October 8, 2020
Different and fun, the drawings were good, but at times distracting. The total story was spot on and provided good examples.
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