Estimated Reading Time: 6 Minutes
By Jason Trew
As part of being selected as a squadron commander, the US Air Force sent me to a one-week training course. Among other topics, we discussed how to nurture a culture of innovation. Our senior leader, 3-star general Stephen Kwast, suggested we read Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace by the late Gordon A. MacKenzie. It is an easy read and full of memorable quotes. For instance, one entire chapter is a single sentence: “Orville Wright did not have a pilot’s license.” Brilliant!
Despite the book’s lighthearted prose and playful sketches, it makes a powerful argument. To innovate, one must get out of the hairball—that “tangled, impenetrable mass of rules, traditions, and systems, all based on what worked in the past”—while remaining within the organization’s gravitational pull. Too far out and new ideas will lack relevance; too close and the bureaucracy kills your creativity. The hairball is thus somewhat analogous to another metaphor used to describe organizational obstacles to innovation, the “frozen middle.”
In the business world, the frozen middle captures the idea that top executives want innovative ideas and lower level employees have those ideas, but somewhere in between those ideas are rejected by a layer of overly conservative mid-level managers. The imagery is increasingly invoked by Air Force leaders and thus Airmen at all levels are now using the metaphor—myself included.
An article published by Airman Magazine is just one of many examples of US Air Force leaders using the phrase.
I now realize, however, that talking about the frozen middle is producing more problems than it solves.
#1. It enables the culture excuse.
First, I often hear it used as a justification for not trying. For example, after a briefing on innovation, dozens of junior officers from the audience told me the problem is not them, but rather the “frozen middle.” It was not that their ideas had been rejected, but that many saw no reason to even try. They never pushed against that barrier to see if the presumed resistance ever materialized. In other words, the metaphor absolved them from the responsibility of taking risks for the greater good; from being a heroic innovator that expects resistance.
#2. It becomes leverage to win cheap approval.
Even worse, the disparaging label is sometimes employed as a rhetorical technique. The “frozen middle” becomes anyone who tells you “no.” No one wants that reputation, even though that may be the answer you need to hear.
#3. On the surface, it implies one’s capacity to innovate is directly related to their position in the organizational hierarchy (and indirectly, to their age).
In reality, innovation is a game everyone plays. Yes, even those who were born before 1981. And yes, even those who tell you “no.” Indeed, even the purest example of the frozen middle—the ones who only shut down ideas based on perceived risks to their own careers—still play a role. It may be as a reasonable voice of dissent, as an obstacle for aspiring innovators to prove their mettle, or even as a muse.
The idea that those resistant to change may actually contribute to innovation may sound too generous. Constraints, however, don’t discourage creativity. In fact, it can be the opposite. We love to bemoan friction, but without it, there’s also no traction (an idea I want to expand on in another piece).
#4. It gives power to something that does not exist.
Those in the frozen middle are not the problem we’ve made them out to be. They may actually be helpful—if they even existed. Besides offering people an easy excuse to go along with organizational inertia or a tactic to convince others to go along with your own idea, the metaphor oversimplifies the wicked dilemma that is innovation. There is no monolithic layer of the organization blocking new ideas. The game is simply more complex than that imagery implies. And, at least in the Air Force, everyone’s heart is usually in the right place, doing what they think is best for our service and our nation.
So, I’ve decided to swear off the misused metaphor. In its place, I’ve gone back to MacKenzie’s wonderful work, because the image used in his title recaptures some important dimensions left out by the dreaded toxic tundra of conformism.
First, in contrast to the metaphor I’m now no longer using, the hairball still has a function. Not only does it provide the gravity that keeps the innovator relevant, but it also serves as the launching pad. The image also accounts for a spectrum of creativity: from standard operating procedures that ground the large amount of tame problems any organization needs to function, to low-earth orbit for those ideas just out of our comfort zone, to the farthest geo-synchronous orbits for the really radical ideas.
Second, it highlights the fact that sometimes missions are aborted. Scrubbing a mission may happen because of risk aversion, of course. But it can also happen for good reasons. Yes, we learn from failing in interesting ways, but some failures are not survivable—especially for defense professionals who operate in a world that is wicked once over (as in, both disorderly and dangerous).
Third, like real astronauts—who often support missions from the ground—the metaphor also accommodates people playing different roles at different times. In some areas, at some moments, I’m eager to be out on the edge. Other times, I’m comfortable closer in. There’s less implication that you are either fully embracing innovation or fully blocking it.
Fourth, “thawing the frozen middle” sounds like a one-time operation. Like the food in our own kitchens, once you thaw something, it usually doesn’t go back into the freezer. Maintaining orbit, however, actually takes some energy to avoid orbital decay.
As an added bonus, orbiting is a fitting metaphor for Airmen. We are in the business of airpower—defined, at least for now, as air, space, and cyberspace—and we could use some more spaceminded references in our vocabulary.
That is about as far as I’ve been able to play with the analogy. Of course, no metaphor is perfect, nor should it be. The map is not the terrain, as the US Army’s Art of Design manual reminds us. In other words, there are all sorts of ways that orbiting is a poor metaphor for agile adaptation (Kepler, anyone?). Still, if you think of a good way to extend the metaphor or offer why it is a poor choice, please leave a comment below or contact me through LinkedIn.
P.S. Space Operations professional and fellow SOS squadron commander, Lt Col P. “Weezer” Slaughter, suggested another fitting space metaphor. The “Molniya orbit”—a highly elliptical path traveling close to the earth in between trips out to its distant turning point—shows how even radical innovators need to touch base with the hairball from time to time.
Jason “TOGA” Trew, PhD, is a senior pilot and a graduate of the US Air Force School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS). His doctoral dissertation, “‘No One Comes Close’: The Technological Paradigm of US Airmen” offers an original analysis of USAF culture through the History of Technology field. He is currently a squadron commander at Squadron Officer School.
The opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the position of the US Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force, or Air University.