Thursday, April 26, 2012

Orbiting the Hairball is not Painting by Numbers

I have just finished reading Gordon MacKenzie's 1996 'classic', Orbiting the Giant Hairball and highly recommend you do the same.

MacKenzie closes with a chapter on painting by numbers.  He talks about the artwork that we are all uniquely able to create with out lives.  On the other hand, social expectations lead us towards filling our canvas with brushstrokes that are only superficially ours - we are lead to follow in the footsteps of others, meeting normalised and derivative ideas of success. It's quite simple, if subtle, but it really made me sit back and take note - it's possible to feel like you're creating something worthwhile, but only realise well down the track that it was nothing of the sort.  It is a little tangential to the book's key points, but I think it's a rather clever metaphor and a good prompt to get out there and do something with what you've just learnt.

The book revolves around the metaphor of the 'hairball' of a (corporate) social environment - 'an entangled pattern of behaviour'. (Interview @Fast Company.)  To maintain vibrancy in this environment we must understand and play off the rules in that space, but keep a sufficient distance to avoid becoming trapped, and losing perspective and the freedom to move.

It's no wonder that government driven by rules and compliance will struggle to find creative, new solutions to deal with shifting issues.

One of MacKenzie's provocative points is that if you're to be creative, you can't know what will eventuate - so focusing on outcomes is counter-productive.

The Book
The book is driven by a series of anecdotes that make it an engaging, light read.

What I love most is the way it's illustrated and presented, with lovely use of sketches and typefaces. It leaves me feeling - nay, demanding! - that more books should be like this. It's made me think about how I present my own thinking as well.  Even if you don't read it, take the chance to pick it up and flick through it.

I will write a longer post soon, synthesising some of my thoughts from the book - about how we think about 'organisations'.  In the meantime, see if you can't find a copy to have a look at.


  1. What work or projects do you actually do?
    Where's the adventure heading....

    1. Destination (and route) still TBC!

      I'm in a very academic phase at the moment, being one of learning, and writing and engaging with people to test and refine ideas. Hence having the time to blog on such eclectic topics.

      I'm still looking for projects to test and solidify ideas. As I get a better handle on these thoughts the ways I might apply them are getting clearer, gradually, and the imperative to actually get out there and do something is getting stronger.

      Suggestions always welcome.

  2. Sounds like an interesting phases to be in. What techniques are you using to refine?

    1. In terms of the thinking - most of my posts either roll out of and then in to discussions I have had. I'm very lucky to know so many people who can be a really good sounding board and help contextualise things.

      Otherwise I tend to let the posts sit until I come across new prompts, though there are a few topics that go into the workflow for further reading or to chase up others' perspectives. My 'research program' is a bit too diverse at the moment, so I don't chase anything too deep.

      Is that what you meant?

      In terms of direction generally, writing helps to identify trends in the perspectives on topics that speak to me. I don't have particular techniques that I have applied to this yet. I tend to map out relations visually, and in the next week the plan is to scope the areas I have been in contact with. It's easy to prioritise when you can actually see the options properly.

  3. On the strength of your post I sourced a copy of this book. Thanks for bringing it to light.
    I was surprised by how 'old' the book was and found myself wishing I'd encountered it much sooner.
    I was caught in a giant hairball, without knowing it, for a long while. Looking back it seems inconceivable that I could have been so entrenched in something so stultifying and damaging. But I know a chorus of great folk who've also been ensnared and taken a long while to leave. I know in my case it was complicated by external factors but also a very pervasive eroding of self confidence and a loss of idealism which took me a long while to accept and reconcile. The personal cost was profound and i still find myself coughing up hair balls - but less and less. Thankfully, i'm reviving the rich inner life I had that was creative and generative. Just wanted to let you know that someone who reads your blog from time to time, had actually taken your advice and followed up.

    1. That was lovely. : ) Thanks for coming back to post.