The big idea we need

sebastian buck
May 20, 2017 · 13 min read

The right book for right now

art by 108 in Italy

About six years ago, I was given a book and promptly put it on the shelf, unread. Six years later, I’ve changed, enso emerged, we started building shared missions, and the world’s changed: there’s been an implosion of trust in all major institutions (business, government, media) and in each other.

And in moving some books around at home, the book I’d promptly shelved years ago hit me with the simple idea in its title: One from Many. In a divisive, chaotic time, that notion was enough for me to start reading. And it turns out to be the exact right book for right now.

It’s a book that offers a radically new operating system for the world, one that’s entirely different from business as usual, but also proven at the biggest scale. And guess what: it’s an operating system inspired by nature, rather than historic top-down, hierarchical institutions modeled after seventeenth-century armies and factories. This new model also has perfect alignment with our concept of shared mission.

The most mundane way of describing this book is the story of how Dee Hock founded Visa and set it on the path to what it is today: nearly 17,000 banks cooperating in a resilient system that enables over 2.5 Billion cards, conducting over 80 Billion transactions worth over $8 Trillion per year.

The most interesting thing about the book is it’s not just the story of Visa’s formation, but the thinking that went into creating such an unusual, co-operative system. The book is partly Dee’s story, and partly his conversations with ‘Old Monkey Mind’—his internal monologue.

Visa’s radical operating model emerged from Dee’s obsession with three questions:

Why are organizations, everywhere, political, commercial and social, increasingly unable to manage their affairs?

Why are individuals, everywhere, increasingly in conflict with and alienated from the organizations of which they are part?

Why are society and the biosphere increasingly in disarray?

In wrestling with these questions, he came to believe that the top-down, hierarchical organization models we currently operate—that prize control—are fundamentally unsound; instead he came to the notion of ‘chaordic’ organizations (a word fused from ‘chaos’ and ‘order’). He defines chaordic as ‘The behavior of any self-organizing and self-governing organizing, organization or system that harmoniously blends characteristics of chaos and order; the fundamental organizing principle of nature’.

How things ought to be

The genesis of Visa came from an urgent need: the early bank card system, dominated by BankAmericard, itself controlled by one organization (Bank of America) was close to total collapse, subsumed by fraud, inefficiency and ego.

To arrive at a fundamentally new vision, he focused not on how things were, how things are, or how things might become, but on how things ought to be. At enso, we begin design sprints with a vision of success: ‘what might emerge if we are successful beyond our wildest dreams?’. Freed from the mental constraints of business as usual, can we envision something radically better, not just incrementally better?

To devise the new operating system, Dee did not unveil a complete vision to an audience; he worked with potential members to devise it together. They started with a committee devoted to investigating what ought to be. In other words (as we say at enso during design sprints and Shared Table dinners): ‘what might we build together?’.

I suppressed my desire to control the future, and tried to create the conditions by which new concepts might emerge.

Through this approach, Dee and his newly formed ‘national executive committee’ envisioned a new form of organization, that would be owned, operated by and for, constituent members—each freely available to participate, cooperate and compete—but governed by some values and principles, at first framed as questions:

What if ownership was in the form of irrevocable right of participation rather than stock?

What if it were self-organizing?

What if power and function were distributive, with no power vested in or function performed by any part that could reasonably be exercised by any more peripheral part?

What if governance were distributive?

What if it could seamlessly blend cooperation and competition?

What if it were infinitely malleable, yet extremely durable?

Something striking about this approach of beginning with a committee, which led to other committees, and gradually mass participation, is this was organization creation (and later operation) by community organizing. The skills with which movements are built and presidents are elected were applied to commercial operations. Not least, Dee had to persuade Bank of America that its future was better as part of this cooperative system than controller of a failing system; he did this through human-to-human engagement, the atomic element of community organizing.

But this was not about coercing or inducing agreement. Dee operates from a premise of educing.

Educe — to bring or draw forth something already present in a latent, or undeveloped form. It can be contrasted with induce, meaning ‘to prevail upon; move by persuasion or influence—to impel, incite, or urge’

Organization agility

Dee outlines the collapse of ‘float’ across culture. ‘Float’ was the time between when a check was written and the time it was finally presented for payment; many companies used that time as a form of interest-free credit. Now, ‘money float’ has essentially disappeared. But so too have other forms of float: ‘life float’, or the evolutionary time required to create new organisms, from 2.2Bn years between the first life forms and nucleated cells. Another billion to simple vertebrates… to almost instantaneous with genetic engineering. Also the collapse of ‘information float’, ‘cultural float’, ‘space float’ as ideas, information, objects and norms now travel the world almost instantaneously.

This endless compression of float, whether of life forms, money, information, technology, time, space, or anything else, can be combined and thought of as the disappearance of ‘change float’—the time between what was and what is to be—between past and future.

There has been no loss of institutional float.

Although their size and power have vastly increased, although we constantly tinker with their form, although we change their labels, there has been no new, commonly accepted idea of organizations since the concepts of corporation, nation-state, and university emerged, the newest of which is centuries old.

We need a construct that’s more suited to the times, to a context of no ‘change float’, and urgent needs.

Beyond business as usual

In case all this seems fanciful by this stage, it’s worth noting that the mental construct of the ‘corporation’ that dominates society today is not that old. In the US, the first corporation-for-profit statute was enacted by New York State in 1811 as a vehicle to enable investment in societal interests. Gradually, this very limited legal construct increased in power during a few key turning points (such as a Supreme Court decision in 1885 that a corporation is a person within the meaning of the Bill of Rights).

They are no longer, not even indirectly, an instrument of the societies they affect, but an instrument of the few who control the ever-increasing power and wealth they command.

When a corporation rips from the Earth irreplaceable energy or resources, no matter how much it pays for them; when it uses any resources more rapidly than they can be replaced, or at less than full replacement cost, it has socialized the cost (spread it to society as a whole; the people at large) and capitalized the resultant gain.

When we trumpet the glories of monetary capitalism and praise the fiction of free markets while decrying the evils of socialism we are engaging in cant and hypocrisy. Clearly, we make love to socialism in the balance-sheet bedroom called cost, and make love to capitalism in the bedroom called gain. It is tearing the physical world apart, and most people as well.

Although deeply entrenched in society, it does not stand that the ‘business as usual’ corporate form should be beyond a radical rethink. “When such creations are no longer viable, nature breaks them down into atoms once again for re-creation into something new and useful”.

A great story of Dee’s powers of community organizing comes from an anecdote of a key moment, where representatives of many banks were at a point of failure in their efforts to create the new organization. After dinner, Dee distributed a gift and said:

We wanted to give you something that you could keep for the remainder of your life as a reminder of this day. On one cufflink [this was the ‘70s, after all] is half of the world surrounded with the Latin phrase ‘Stadium ad prosperandum’—the will to succeed. On the second cufflink is the other half of the world surrounded with ‘Voluntas in conveniendum’—the grace to compromise. We meet tomorrow for the final time to disband the effort after an arduous two years. There is no possibility of compromise. As organizing agent, we have one last request. Will you please bring your cufflinks to the meeting in the morning? When it ends, each of us will take them with us as a reminder for the remainder of our lives that the world can never be united through us because we lacked the will to succeed and the grace to compromise. But if, by some miracle, our differences can dissolve before morning, this gift will remind us to the day we die that the world was united because we had the will to succeed and the grace to compromise.”

The next morning, participants settled their differences and agreement was reached on every issue. Visa International came into being a few months later.

The role of wisdom

Dee has a simple construct for information: noise becomes data when it can be discerned, data becomes information when it is assembled into a coherent whole; information becomes knowledge when it is integrated with other information; knowledge becomes understanding when related to other knowledge; understanding becomes wisdom when informed by purpose, ethics, principles, memory of the past and projection into the future.

Science has traditionally operated in the provinces of data, information, and knowledge … theology philosophy, literature and art have traditionally operated in the provinces of understanding and wisdom.

Today we are drowning in a raging flood of new data and information and the raft of wisdom to which we desperately cling is breaking up beneath us.

A stark contrast exists between native societies, which operated with a very high ratio of wisdom to data, and our society, which operates with a very low ratio. “The immensity of data and information that assaults our lives is conditioned by an ever-declining ratio of social, economic and spiritual value.”

The role of competition and cooperation

When we think of shared missions at enso, we’re describing a structure whereby a mission is big enough that multiple cultural stakeholders can work collaboratively towards shared success, but not that all forms of competition need be put aside. Dee covers the supposed incompatibility of competition and cooperation:

The concept of organizations composed of semi-autonomous equals affiliated for common purpose, such as Visa, the Internet, and Linux software, has intensified the endless debate as to whether competition or cooperation should rule the day. Each has passionate messiahs to preach its virtue. Both are wrong. Competition and cooperation are not contraries. They have no opposite meaning. They are complementary. In every aspect of life, we do both. Schools are highly cooperative endeavors within which scholars vigorously compete. The Olympic Games combine immense cooperation in structure and rules with intense competition in events…. every cell in our bodies vigorously competes for every atom of nutrient we swallow and every atom of oxygen we breathe, yet every cell can sense when the good of the whole requires they cooperate by relinquishing their demands when the need of other cells is greater. Life cannot reach its highest potential, in fact, cannot exist without a harmonious blend of competition and cooperation.

The role of full humans

The shift Dee describes is not just about one of structure, but also how the structure impacts the humans within it. It’s becoming increasingly clear that we need more emotional intelligence in people, in organizations, in products and services. As we shift rapidly from human tasks to microchips, robots and AI, our most human qualities become our most valuable contribution.

The production of goods and services has progressed from the age of ‘hand-crafting’, through the industrial age, more accurately thought of as the age of ‘machine-crafting’, into the so-called information age, which can best be understood as the age of ‘mind-crafting’… whether it will eventually lead to yet another age characterized by an extension of ethical and spiritual power is a much more compelling question…

In organizations of the future the centuries-old effort to eliminate judgement and intuition, art if you will, from the conduct of institutions will change. Organizations have too long aped the traditional mechanistic, military model wherein obedience to orders is paramount and individual behavior or independent thinking frowned upon, if not altogether forbidden.

It has created a society of people alienated from their work and from the organizations in which they are enmeshed. Far too much ingenuity, effort, and intelligence go into circumventing the mindless, sticky web of rules and regulations by which people are necessarily bound.

As a result, Dee worked to make Visa a place that operated based on core values and principles rather than strict rules, and shared information broadly, to the extent of operating board meetings that were open to employees, partners and their families.

Learning and management

Despite the giant success of Visa, Dee spends a good amount of time covering what they got wrong. In particular, ‘the organization was so new, success so immediate, growth so explosive, and resources so short it was necessary to hire most management from outside the company. Each person came full of the techniques, culture and habits of the mechanistic, industrial age organizations from which they emerged. Many took the openness and liberty of Visa as applicable to them, but not in relation to those over whom they had authority.’

The chaordic concept leads to a refreshing, simple model for how people should manage, and should be managed:

The first and paramount responsibility of anyone who purports to manage is to manage self: one’s own integrity, character, ethics, knowledge, wisdom, temperament, words, and acts … without management of self no one is fit for authority no matter how much they acquire, for the more authority they acquire the more dangerous they become. It is the management of self that should occupy 50 percent of our time and the best of our ability. And when we do that, the ethical, moral and spiritual elements of management are inescapable.
The second responsibility is to manage those who have authority over us: bosses, supervisors, directors, regulators, ad infinitum. Without their consent and support, how can we follow conviction, exercise judgment, use creative ability, achieve constructive results or create conditions by which others can do the same? Managing superiors is essential. Devoting 25 percent of our time and ability to that effort is not too much.
The third responsibility is to manage one’s peers — those over whom we have no authority and who have no authority over us — associates, competitors, suppliers, customers — one’s entire environment if you will. Without their respect and confidence little or nothing can be accomplished. Our environment and peers can make a small heaven or hell of our life. Is it not wise to devote at least 20 percent of our time, energy, and ingenuity to managing them?
The fourth responsibility is to manage those over whom we have authority. The common response is that all one’s time will be consumed managing self, superiors and peers. There will be no time to manage subordinates. Exactly! One need only select decent people, introduce them to the concept, induce them to practice it, and enjoy the process. If those over whom we have authority properly manage themselves, manage us, manage their peers, and replicate the process with those they employ, what is there to do but see they are properly recognized, rewarded — and stay out of their

Applying the new operating system

If Visa is one prototype to be studied and learned from, and the operation of the web another, World Weather Watch, the global air traffic control systems, Alcoholics Anonymous, Mondragon Corporacion—and our family systems—are others to look at for inspiration.

Dee imagines a number of other applications of this operating system, including how to fix healthcare, education, energy, our food systems and philanthropy. Today, all dominated by ineffective, hierarchical organizations acting without cooperation.

From a speech Dee gave to a large medical convention:

You don’t have a health-care problem. You have an institutional problem, and until you deal with it, things will get progressively worse.

Any one of you will set out virtually anywhere in the world with a small rectangle of blue, white and gold polyvinyl-chloride in your pocket with complete confidence that you will be transported, housed, fed, clothed and entertained, with all the complex information that requires—currency conversions, language translations, and financial settlements—handled within seconds with complete privacy and 99.99 percent accuracy.

How can it be that you cannot provide anything remotely comparable if I walk down the hall or across the street between medical practitioners, hospitals, or laboratories, let alone have the temerity to become ill or involved in an accident in another town or country?

How can it be that you can understand and deal effectively with the most intricate, complex, systemic structure that trillions of years of evolution could create, the human body, yet remain in the dark ages when it comes to organizing yourselves into an effective, systemic structure for the benefit of those you purport to serve, even when doing so would serve your interests equally well?

What next?

At enso, we arrived at a similar vision, and are pursuing many of these principles through the concept of Shared Mission. But whether we call it chaordic organizations, shared missions, or something else, the need is apparent and urgent for the application of better systems than the old, mechanistic, hierarchical corporations competing for the sole aim of amassing shareholder returns. We all have a responsibility—an opportunity—to push towards that transition. The most fundamental part of this shift is that it relies on—and puts great faith in—everyday people.

Can such a massive change of consciousness occur? Of course it can! In the great sweep of history, it often has. Will it occur in time to ameliorate the epidemic of institutional failure that is everywhere apparent and minimize the resulting environmental and social carnage that is enveloping us all? Ah, that is another question entirely…I turn to the classics for guidance…

One can find no better answer than the words of Camus:
Great ideas come into the world as quietly as doves. Perhaps then, if we listen attentively, we shall hear the faint fluttering of wings, the gentle stirring of life and hope. Some will say this hope lies in a nation, others, in a man. I believe rather that it is awakened, revived, nourished by millions of individuals whose deeds and works every day negate frontiers and the crudest implications of history. Each and every one builds for all.

Each and every one builds for all.

Each and every one builds for all. An idea that’s at once radical, and as old as nature.

As Robert Safian, Fast Company’s Editor said in this month’s issue:

Business has long been ruled by the short-term demands of Wall Street investors: quarterly earning results, a rising share price. But when you think about it, that’s really a taker’s attitude. An maybe that’s starting to change.

You can find One From Many here, and some of Dee’s more recently writing here.

A huge, belated thanks to Ben Goldhirsh, who gave me One From Many all those years ago, and told me at the time that it was transformational. I got there in the end.

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