Book Review : One From Many, Dee Hock

Well, this is a book that many people recommended me over the last years. But the word “chaordic” – invented by Dee Hock to describe new kinds of organizations – seemed to me so much like a typical consultant buzzword that I never read it. I could never be grateful enough to my colleague Sanna for her suggestion to add it to our joint reading list for our team learning contract : this is a MUST-READ book for anyone interested in organizations in the 21st Century !

Dee Hock is the originator and served as the first President of VISA International, the global payment system and one of the most recognized brand in the world.

What is so interesting in this book ?

  1. It is first and foremost a fascinating story where a very exceptional context (the crisis of the first card payment system in the U.S.) is intertwined with the personal quest of a humble (but quite unconventional) Seattle bank executive. Having a glimpse into such an intimate view is remarkable. Dee Hock describes with a lot of enjoyable details the ups and downs of this amazing  adventure : creating a single entity with thousands of financial organizations around the world without any of them having more power than the other. The story itself is like a thriller with beautifully painted characters (like Hock’s boss – Mr Carlson – who closes every meeting with the attentive address : “Young man, did this meeting serve your purpose ?”).
  2. One from Many is also a book about wisdom. Dee Hock wrote it in 1999,  30 years after the beginning of the whole story. It is not a business case built and made up just a few years after the events it depicts. The book has this flavour of time, of long hours of reflections, without complacency but also without bitterness. Despite the seeming success of VISA, Dee Hock is not quite satisfied with the final result. So the book is not about declaring how beautiful VISA has become, it is about the difficulty to bring into life organizations as they ought to be, rather than just as they are or as they could be. This story is a story of life : how can your deepest personal quest resist adversity ? how can an idea(l) find its way through reality ? In a Fast Company interview in 1998, D. Hock says :“[The chaordic organization] idea is a baby, like a daughter or a son. We can have a vision of what it will eventually be. But we won’t see that in our lifetime.” 
  3. This book enlarges our vision of what organizations can possibly be.  Chaordic organizations is a concept that draws a lot on nature and the way it blends competition and cooperation at the same time. For D. Hock, “chaordic” means “the behavior of any self-organizing and self-governing organism, organization, or system that harmoniously blends characteristics of chaos and order” (p.13)  Creating chaordic organizations has a lot to do with design : clarifying and making purpose and principles explicit, as well as caring for processes. This is how, at VISA,  the power of one single stakeholder (Bank of America) who used to be licensing its own card and brands to other banks, would be turned into a system (with a constitution) where no one – even the VISA staff or board – had a view of the whole nor more power on other entities. It all resulted both from democratic processes (like regional elected boards) AND from freedom of action of each entity within the guiding principles and purpose of VISA. The efficiency of such a system is really fascinating, for example, when D. Hock recalls the speed of adoption of the VISA name and logo.
  4. Finally, I was really impressed by the view of leadership that emerges from this book. D. Hock is a really great leader, and despite his humility I very much doubt that VISA would exist as it is without his vision and persuasion skills. What is impressive in him is the alliance of a very (very, very) ambitious vision and down-to-earth pragmatism. Circumstances, obstacles or failures are seen as opportunities to grow and to learn. Confidence in the power of others is as huge as distrust in bureaucracy. Let me share with you one tasty quote :

In the beginning, there were no titles at NBI [first name of VISA]. When recruiting new people accustomed to the old ways, the question of titles would inevitably come up. In my desk was a long, typed list. With a serious expression, I would explain it was our custom to have each employee select their own title, which they could change from time to time if it failed to meet their needs. On the list was a rich selection : Grand Duke, Lord, Lady, Prince, Queen, Princess, King, Duchess, Ayatollah, Bishop, etc. If employees wished to add a descriptive addition, that would be all right. They could use Ayatollah of Advertising or the Grand Duke of Accounting. The only requirement was that the title must be used on all occasions. No one accepted.

Using the same logic, we had no job descriptions. I was often asked : ‘How will people know what I do ?’ – “If what you do is not readily apparent to everyone, that becomes a very interesting question” I would reply. (p. 245)

One From Many has never been so relevant as today. Maybe because Dee Hock sowed the chaordic concept like he sowed hundreds of trees in his land after he retired from Visa, he sees its development and putting into practice as very slow. Will the current crises accelerate the emergence of the type of organizations that he described more than 10 years ago  ? Or will it take – as Thomas Kuhn teached us – a whole generation to really live the paradigm shift and experiment the Chaordic Age ? Whatever the answer may be to these questions, the legacy of Dee Hock for all of us who look for more human organizations is enormous. As Renaissance people used to say : we are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants”. Dee Hock is one of these giants.

More on Dee Hock and Visa story > Fast Company article, 1995

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6 Responses to Book Review : One From Many, Dee Hock

  1. Great reflection, Laurent. I’m reading this book now!! (sincronicity?). This man was a visionary and it seems that chaordic organization is a concept of today’s organizations. Reading this book is a must for all people in managing (and leadership) positions. Keep posting, I really enjoy your blog. Recuerdos desde Finlandia : )
    Javier

    • Hi Javier, thank you for your comments. I would love to discuss about the book when you’ve finished it. There is much more than what you can write in a post.Yes, synchronicity works ! This morning I sent a long email to someone precisely 8 seconds after he sent another long one to me… Que gozen Finlandia ! LM

  2. Hi Laurent,
    Thanks for this insightful summary. I will re-read this book. Oftentimes it is the reader who has to slowly prepare himself to receive the wisdom and climb on the shoulders of “Giants”

    Cheers,

    Charles

  3. Jon Elbery says:

    I am currently reading this book and can’t put it down. For a couple of years I have been working with a client who is a psychologist, working to put together an organisation based on non-linear dynamics. I can’t find what happened to the Chaordic Commons which was the organisation emerging from Hock’s work reviewing organisations. There is very little current information on the web regarding Hock or the Commons
    Does anyone know where things are with Hock and who are the main proponents of his practices in 2012?
    Thanks

    Jon

    • Hello Jon
      Thank you for posting your comment. Yes, the book is amazing. I see its content as so contemporary. But I cannot answer you about how these ideas and processes are living today. Maybe it’s our role to keep them alive by applying these theories and hypothesis and have them work. Best. Laurent.

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