Orville Wright Did Not Have a Pilot's License
How to Orbit the Giant Hairball of Your Organization
by Sid Smith

"The meaning of things lies not in the things themselves,
but in our attitude towards them."
Antoine de Saint Exupery

While reading the book "Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving with Grace", I came across the statement "Orville Wright did not have a pilot's license", and I burst out laughing.

How amazingly true this is! Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud weren't licensed either. What about Ben Franklin - did he have an electrician's license? Unlikely.

Might I be questioning your (or my) organizational bureaucracy? Well, no. And, yes. Let me explain by way of examples.

I received an email recently from someone who wants to become a coach. Her major concern was the time and expense required to get "certified" (there is no licensing yet for coaching). She hadn't coached anyone yet, had no training, and was already worried about licensing.

The next day I received another call, this one from a client who's a senior manager in a fast-growing national company. His gripe was a corporate culture that preaches empowerment, but only as long as you do exactly what the head cheese wants, in precisely the way he wants it. The head guy wants you to "prove your worth" by following his recipe for success.

Somewhere, somehow, we've managed to turn things upside down and inside out in our drive for consistency and "productivity". What's common between the two examples is the need, either externally or internally driven, to conform to a "norm". That is, it's a drive to blend in to whatever culture we've affixed ourselves to. We want to look professional, fit in, and make sure we're following proper procedure before moving ahead. Do any of the following statements sound familiar?

"I need to do a little more research first..."

"I'm not qualified to be leading anyone..."

"I need to get the rest of my life in shape before I..."

"There are a few final details I have to take care of before I can..."

"What if someone asks a question, and I don't have the answer?"

I was talking with a friend who's a kindergarten teacher. We were at a wedding watching a little girl twirl with absolute delight on the dance floor, and she remarked that even as young as kindergarten, many of the boys thought dancing was stupid. They might look "bad".

What are you NOT doing because you either don't feel qualified,
or you think you might look bad (or stupid, or foolish…)?

I'm certainly susceptible to peer pressure, outside influence, or whatever name we give that urge to fit in. That's what Gordon MacKenzie calls the "hair ball". Every organization has one, as does every industry and profession. Every community (group of friends) and family has it's own hairball. Sounds pretty awful, doesn't it? Yet, there's a certain degree of safety and security we all get from being part of a group, following it's norms, habits, principles and guidelines. When we "orbit the hairball", we can stay outside of its direct influence, yet remain within the gravitational pull of its values and vision.

Orbiting the hair ball is where I want to be.

Why? I get to innovate, create, say or do things that might seem "risky". I get to become an expert, rather than defer to other experts. I can learn from others without getting sucked into their specific way of doing things. I can take steps into the unknown, and do it in a way that suits my normally cautious temperament. I'm not one to climb blindly off a cliff ledge, but I will traverse an unknown path in the woods because I have confidence in my ability to find my way back.

What do you want to do?

Would you like to learn how to Orbit the giant hairball of your organization? Even the best, brightest, most innovative organizations will have their own hairball. Maybe you have to be quirky to fit in. Most organizations today have a giant hairball that says "if you care about your work, you're here until at least 7:00 every evening." At the same time, these organizations will tell you that "we care about your families".

Ready to orbit? First, you'll want to understand the nature of this hairball you'll be orbiting.

What is "expected" of you? What are the conventions by which you communicate, play, exchange ideas, innovate, or "produce results"?

What should you, or shouldn't you say or do?

Who can (or can't) you talk with?

What happens if you say "no"?

What happens if you say "yes"?

What are the core values and the key vision of your hairball? Can you articulate them? What about them has meaning in your life?

Knowing what keeps you connected to your "hairball" is the first step to learning how to orbit it. There are very valid reasons any of us stay connected to a group, business, or community. It could be a sense of safety, security, or companionship. For example, I have one client who remains connected to his "hairball" because 1) it provides a very worthwhile service; and 2) if/when they go public he stands to make about a million dollars.

There are no "bad" reasons... only reasons. Awareness is the first step.

Orbiting the hairball calls for staying connected to those parts of the job that have meaning or value to you, and then stepping outside the "norm" to innovate. Here are a couple of examples:

The independent professional. Most independent professionals will claim they're not part of any giant hairball. Is that so? Take a lot of coaches I know. They (and I've done this) offer a "free introductory coaching session" because that's supposed to be the best way to build a business. Really? That's just part of the coaching profession hairball, and is only real because they make it real.

A coach can still remain connected to the coaching community, but "orbit" it by looking outside the coaching community for innovative ideas for building a business. For example, I offer free seminars on "attitude management" for unemployed professionals. The byline I use is "Get it done (and have fun)", simply because I believe that the attitude with which one approaches work determines the relative ease (or difficulty) of success. How about this one: run a special on odd and unusual holidays? (there are many, such as "Yell 'FUDGE' at Noon on June 2 in North America").

The Corporate HR Manager. Now here's someone who's often in the thick of the hairball, even in the most "innovative" companies. It's difficult being the person responsible for certain corporate policies and procedures, and at the same time being an "orbiter". Catherine Grace of New Edge Networks is an orbiter. Their company is all about innovation and play. Yet, when I heard her speak as part of a panel on "Surviving the Dot-Bomb", it was clear that she is able to step outside the corporate hairball and see things from a different, and innovative perspective. Rather than accept "the way we motivate our employees", she's always looking for new ways to invigorate the staff.

Are you looking for a way to be an orbiter?

First, you have to decide to become an orbiter. Of course, how you work this depends on the nature of your "hairball" (I love using this metaphor... can you tell?). If the nature of your organization is that "we're all equal, and nobody, but nobody should stand out", then becoming an orbiter will be especially difficult. But, by deciding to become an orbiter, you have to step out of the norm. There is no other way.

Here are the five basic steps to becoming an expert orbiter:

  1. Decide you want to become an expert orbiter.
  2. Find one way in which you're stuck to the hairball ("we just do it this way").
  3. Learn and do something different.
  4. Teach it to others.
  5. Get out of the way, and go back to step 2. (before long, your "innovation" will also become part of the hairball).

Orbiters don't necessarily know more than you do. But, they're willing to step out of the hairball long enough to innovate, create, or otherwise try something new and different. Then, they teach it to others. Why? So that they can then create, innovate, and try something else new and different, but within the orbit of the mother ship.

If you examine innovative, creative companies, you'll see an organization still with its own giant hairball, but with at least one group of orbiters who are willing to be just a little quirky, a little different. They're not willing to be stopped by "not knowing enough" or not having the "right credentials".

They stick that old key on the string, put the kite in the air, and wait until the next storm develops. Then, they orbit.

Sid Smith is Coach, Trainer and Speaker from Portland, Oregon, who stops business professionals from swimming upstream. His specialty is Energy Management, and he uses his books, coaching, workshops and consulting to help people "get it done, and have fun". Learn how to work at peak performance with mental toughness, emotional resilience, and physical readiness. Oh, and maybe wear a silly hat just for good measure. Sid Smith 503-287-0246 email:sid@sidsmith.com and visit www.sidsmith.com .

Many more articles in Leading Change in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2004 by Sid Smith. All rights reserved.

Current Issue - Archives - CEO Links - News - Conferences - Recommended Reading