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Transformation by Design

An interview with Dee Hock
by Melissa Hoffman

Dee Hock

You don't have to understand chaos theory to appreciate the new species of corporate organization that Dee Hock has unleashed on the planet, an organizational paradigm that could very well represent the next step in the collective evolution of the human family. You don't even have to know anything about corporate structure, nor do you have to nurse a secret passion for institutional reform. All you have to do is take a long look at a snowflake, reflect on a forest, ponder the neurons in your brain—or use your Visa card—and you will begin to appreciate the intricate, manifold hive of pulsing impulses and multidimensional parleys of information that give rise to everything in the created universe. Sound perplexing? Well, as a group of scientists are discovering, this orderly chaotic buzz is the way of the world, and if you just sit down and think about it, really think hard about it, or take long walks in the woods like Dee Hock did, you might find yourself surfing waves of miraculous and intricate order foaming at the narrow edge of chaos. Look deeply enough and you will discover the true nature of all of evolution's architecture, which is what this issue of What Is Enlightenment? is all about: living transformation.

Dee Hock is the founder and former CEO of Visa International, the most successful business venture on Earth. Could this former bank manager with a conscience be evolution's unlikely hero? Visa owes its success, according to Hock, to its structure, which is nothing less than an evocation of nature's "cha-ordic" laws. Hock coined the term chaordic to describe that perfect balance of chaos and order where evolution is most at home. Yes, that's right. A business venture that takes its cues from Mother Evolution, whose "trademark" dynamism, changing change, and explosive originality are forever groping to innovate, prosper, and extend creation's euphoric reach further and further into manifestation.

If you don't think that something as common as the plastic Visa credit card in your wallet could be part of evolution's plan, consider this: Visa International
... espouses no political, economic, social or legal theory, thus transcending language, custom, politics and culture to successfully connect a bewildering variety of more than 21,000 financial institutions,16 million merchants and 800 million people in 300 countries and territories. Annual volume of $1.4 trillion continues to grow in excess of twenty percent compounded annually. A staff of about three thousand people scattered in twenty-one offices in thirteen countries on four continents provides ... around-the-clock operation of two global electronic communication systems with thousands of data centers communicating through nine million miles of fiber-optic cable. Its electronic systems clear more transactions in one week than the Federal Reserve System does in a year.
Hock has chronicled Visa's spectacular emergence along with his philosophical and personal odyssey in a book called Birth of the Chaordic Age. Therein he deftly disassembles assumptions you didn't even know you had; assumptions about how we have come to order, organize, and configure everything, from our desktops to our institutions to the very pattern of our thinking.

Hock wrote Birth of the Chaordic Age in the late nineties, years after walking away from the thriving Visa. He had spent the better part of ten years in retirement, restoring the degraded acreage around his ranch to vibrancy. Then, as the story goes, one night while reading Mitch Waldrop's Complexity (a book about chaos theory), he found illuminated in its pages an uncanny echo of the very principles he had invoked to bring Visa into being. His bucolic retirement was soon to come to an end (a fascinating story which you'll have to read about in his book).

You may be wondering what a chaordic organization looks like, and if you ask Hock, he would likely point you in the direction of a snowflake or a bee's wing. But fortunately his book, along with the website of the nonprofit organization he helped found (The Chaordic Commons,, explains this phenomenon in captivating detail. Principally, a chaordic organization is a self-organizing and self-evolving entity, which ends up looking more like a neural network (like the Internet) than a hierarchically-organized bureaucracy in which decision-making power is centralized at the top and trickles down through a series of well-regulated departments and managers. Chaordic organizations do not fear change or innovation. They are, by their very nature, supremely adaptive. They also tend to be inclusive, multicentric, and distributive and, ultimately, strongly cohesive due to their unshakable focus on common purpose and core principles. If you can't quite visualize it, there's a good reason, which Hock will explain in the following interview.

So the reason that this issue of What Is Enlightenment? had to include Dee Hock—a corporate innovator whose personal risk taking and conscientious peeling of life's onion has led to the emergence of a new collective life-form—is this: our spiritual canon, while replete with examples of personal transformation, has rarely addressed the intricacies of real collective transformation. And since the ability of the many to communicate, coalesce, and coordinate as one may be the only hope for humanity's future, we thought that what Dee Hock had to offer was nothing less than a profound example, wrought out of his own sweat and experience, of just where we humans might be heading for our next evolutionary leap. Hock has proved that a very large group of individuals can come together under the cohesion of a unifying purpose while enhancing—rather than swallowing—the autonomy of each participating individual. To say that the individual and collective benefit each other in this arrangement would be an understatement, for, ideally, the intricate dance between part and whole endlessly releases new creative capacities in both. Hock talks a refreshing brand of truth and proves that it's possible for a unified yet diverse group of people to wend its way through tumultuous change while continuously growing and transforming itself as it embraces the hidden potentials of an unknown future.

Finally, Hock's own odyssey made us wonder: What would it take to be fully chaordic in this crazy, fomenting world, teetering on dual brinks of salvation and disaster? Must we, as Hock suggests, consistently sweep our minds of their old, beleaguered Newtonian concepts, which act as an invisible lens through which we behold a mechanistic and controllable world? What manner of dedication on our part would be needed to cast aside our old ways of thinking so that we might even begin to directly perceive the ever-present genius of evolution's design? In the following interview, Dee Hock talks to WIE about the mind-stopping implications of the "chaordic age," an age that may have begun more than thirty years ago, in part, with this ordinary bank manager, who looked around, saw what was happening, asked a heck of a lot of questions, and took action.

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