Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Gordon MacKenzie, Creative Paradox

I’d never heard of Gordon MacKenzie before I read “Orbiting the Giant Hairball,” his compact little book on business philosophy, and I’ll be darned if I can find out much about him on the Internet now, but I’d like to meet the guy.

He thinks it’s fine, for example, to say at work that sometimes the job is easy. That doesn’t mean it’s a simple job, or that it’s a job not worth doing, but that the person doing it has the facility – the genius – to do it and to do it well in a way that to them seemed nearly effortless. That beats the drive-yourself-until-you’re-dead mentality, or, as he puts it:
What the solution delivers – if we buy into it – is a workplace where the quality of life is continually eroded by contrived travail.

Wouldn’t a more promising choice be
To turn your back
On the
Overwork-as-an-end-in-itself Game

And instead
Enlist the hidden genius within you
And develop the skills to play like a champion?
Of course, even my sad little text rendition of his words don’t do them justice. I’ll include a scan:

Used under the fair use doctrine for commentary purposes.

You can probably tell by now that this isn’t your standard-issue business book. That’s what makes it so enjoyable. What this is, is a guide for the corporate gadfly, the creative genius, the worker with an idea who can’t get it out of the bureaucracy and into the real world, to navigate the “hairball” – the nest of policies, official rules, accountancy, drudgery and grey blahdom that make up many corporations.

What I find most appealing about MacKenzie’s approach is that he gears it not only for the creative genius – the corporate asshat, as regarded by many – but also for the more ordinary “genius” who has a good idea on how to make something at work go better but needs strategies on escaping the bureaucracy to make that idea come to pass. He also reveals how, at times, even in his own position as a guide to creative genius, sometimes he nearly became entangled in the hairball himself.

He makes apt criticisms of corporate structure that may organize things perfectly but often stifle natural collaboration because one department is cordoned off from the other. At the same time, he recognizes the hidebound necessity for order; he’s not one of those genius types who wants to create without recognizing that creation can be profitable or that organizations exist only to thumb the nose at them:
The escape from habitual culture must always be temporary if you wish to be permitted back into the culture . . .

Yes, you may go out and play; but you must be home by dinnertime.

However, temporary as these Orbits out of the Hairball may be, they are expeditions that promise finding in the chaos beyond culture antidotes for the stagnation of the status quo.
More sage advice:
Any time a bureaucrat
(i.e., a custodian of a system)
Stands between you
And something you need or want,
Your challenge is to help that bureaucrat
Discover a means,
Harmonious with the system,
To meet your need.
That’s what MacKenzie calls dynamic following – it’s not giving in without hope to the Hairball as the denizens of Scott Adams’ cynical world do all too often; it’s finding ways to orbit the hairball, doing your work in a way that helps release your genius, your creativity, while still producing what the Hairball wants, because they’re the ones paying you.

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