This is a guest post by Harry Webne-Behrman. This article is adapted from his recent book, What Matters in This Moment: Leading Groups Through Uncertain Times.
One of my favorite books is Orbiting the Giant Hairball (1996), where author Gordon MacKenzie helps us focus on how to remain creative and innovative in the face of inexorable gravitational forces to get sucked into the conformity of the Hairball. Two of his examples come to mind here, one at the individual level and the other at the organizational level:
“What You Don’t See is What You Get”
MacKenzie describes a well-dressed man barking at a herd of cows to be more productive. He pictures himself a “Big Cheese,” and that his workers (the cows) are accountable to be at their work stations, constantly producing value that can be turned into profits. He fails to recognize that the seemingly “lazy” work of eating grass, digesting it, and allowing the process to unfold slowly actually results in what he sees as “productive” work, when they are attached to milking machines that capture milk. We all need time to contemplate, reflect more deeply, and gain creative inspiration that leads to those innovative, value-added ideas that truly serve our Purpose, whether defined in terms of customer demand or social improvements.
“The Pyramid and the Plum Tree”
In this example, MacKenzie envisions conversations occurring within two distinct types of businesses. In the Pyramid, “top management” can ‘see forever,’ which fosters a sense of vision but makes them somewhat oblivious to the struggles lower on the pyramid. Working down, “middle management” is obsessed with competition for power within the organization, supervisors are focused on working their way up, and production staff at the base have little sense of what it’s like further up; they can only focus on discussions related to producing their share of the enterprise. Conversations reflect these perspectives: Those on top feel the urgency of increased production, those in the middle are pressured to motivate workers to produce more, and the workers below are unmotivated by their supervisors, crushed by the pressures from above.
In contrast, the Plum Tree organization has product creators and producers at the top of the tree (bearing fruit), with managers and supervisors operating as supportive branches of the tree. The “trunk” is top management, the eternally supportive structure that facilitates everything else that is life-affirming, productive, and nurturing of the workers. The “roots” of the plum tree are the cash flow that makes this all possible. Conversations reflect these perspectives, where middle managers and supervisors are asking producers, “What do you need?” and they reply, “We’ve got what we need: sunshine and air.” In conclusion, MacKenzie writes: “A Pyramid is a tomb while a Tree is an organism.”
Planting Plum Trees in Pyramids
Most of us work in Pyramid organizations, where hierarchy dictates access to power and the capacity to advance the creative innovations that nourish our souls. The key is to plant Plum Trees in Pyramids, bringing oases of life to sterile environments that we have been socialized to accept as normal. So how do we put these ideas into practice, all in service of to What Matters? I offer a simple strategy, applicable across many approaches to learning:
Question what you believe you already know: You might be saying, “Why would I question it? I already know it!” Precisely! You must bring an attitude of Humility and Curiosity to this question. If we practice actively questioning our assumptions, we develop greater rigor regarding the artificial fences we have built around ourselves. If we model such an attitude, we open creative pathways for others, as well.
Take stock of how you actually spend your time: A related idea from MacKenzie is to ‘follow our Bliss’ when we contemplate our life’s work. If we follow our bliss, we cultivate energy to orbit the “hairball” that stifles our creativity. Where are there opportunities to inject Bliss into your work day? Shake up your routine. Experiment with different options and see what works. Take notes and make changes based upon actual results.
Journal your experiences: Then invite others to do the same and share what has been learned. It is likely that another person’s experience will be instructive to you, just as your story will open up new ways of thinking to someone else. These can be lunchtime or coffee break discussions, or may be more formalized if they generate useful improvements in working relationships through what is learned (such as through a community of practice). As opportunities arise, integrate new practices and insights into your work routine.
Bring what is learned into formal meeting spaces: One key to sustaining our Plum Trees is to nurture them in formal Pyramid spaces. Integrate emerging goals and practices into performance management goals, strategic priorities, and project timelines. Modify formal management team meetings or project leader check-in sessions to allow creative interactions, and empower others to facilitate conversations in such ways. You can begin to influence the larger organizational conversation by creating such learning opportunities.
These steps won’t change the world, but they will improve how you walk in it.
- Where does the real productivity occur in your work? To what degree does it come from time to reflect and inspire creative ideas? Look at ways you can increase such time for yourself and for your work team.
- Look at your organization, and the degree to which it reflects Pyramid or Plum Tree approaches to management. Where does it feel like a Tomb? Where does it feel like an Organism?
- The entire concept of Orbiting is powerful: We often tell ourselves there is only the option to leave a stifling organization or remain and have our creative juices compromised by “reality.” To Orbit is to “follow your bliss,” as MacKenzie says. It is certainly possible to find elements of Bliss within your work space by erecting boundaries of protection, but it is also possible to do so in partnership with others, who also seek Bliss, through purposeful collaborations and changing the processes in which we work to respect that opportunity.
About the Author: Harry Webne-Behrman has served as a facilitator, consultant, educator, and mediator for over 40 years. Along with his wife, Lisa Webne-Behrman, he served as Senior Partner of Collaborative Initiative, Inc., a private consulting and mediation firm based in Madison, Wisconsin from 1991-2017, before moving to Ottawa, Canada, where he currently works and teaches. Harry has worked with hundreds of businesses, educational institutions, community groups and public agencies, helping address entrenched organizational and social issues. By consulting with leaders, facilitating large-scale deliberation and engagement processes, mediating interpersonal disputes, and offering educational programs that develop skills needed to address such challenges, Harry has earned a reputation as a valued resource and guide.