Birth of the Chaordic Age: Dee Hock CEO Visa Business Executive Book Review

This is a book that is fascinating and frustrating by turns. It’s about one of the most fascinating and effective and least written-about business executives in the world, Dee Hock.

Hock is the founder and CEO Emeritus of Visa. Visa is an organizational form unlike anything anyone had ever seen or, for that matter, has seen since. It combined the efforts of organizations that were normally at each other’s competitive throats. But that’s not all.

In the process of getting Visa to work, Hock and the other folks that he worked with, also managed to create the payment system that is Visa. To realize how big an achievement this is, consider the fact that the check-clearing system in the Federal Reserve still does not work with a fraction of the efficiency of the Visa-approval and payment-clearing process.

I’d known about Dee Hock for years, and I was fascinated by him and by the process that must have gone into establishing, actually inventing, Visa. I snatched up this book when it came out hoping that it would contain the story of Hock and the Visa adventure. It did. That story is compelling and well written.

But there’s more to this book than that story, and the “more” includes lots of bits of value and many bits of frustration.

Take the title. Birth of the what Age? “Chaordic.” Try looking that up in the dictionary. It’s not there. Do we need a brand-new word to describe what Hock is describing? Maybe, but I’m not sure.

I’m quite sure I don’t need some of the other strange things that he does with language in the book. There is, for example, “Thee Ancient One.” That turns out to be a tractor. Then there’s “old monkey mind.”

Old monkey mind is the term that Hock uses in several different ways throughout the book. Sometimes it’s used to refer to logical, linear, left side of the brain. Sometimes it’s used to refer to old thinking patterns. Sometimes it seems to be a kind of alter ego for Hock with whom he had conversations.

That kind of language is cute but it’s more appropriate to a book of whimsy. Here it gets in the way of understanding. And there’s a lot here to understand.

Whatever else Dee Hock is, he is certainly one of the most fascinating intellects that I’ve come across. He’s clearly a man of principle. He’s had an amazing life, starting from poverty, rising to heights of business where he created one of the great financial institutions in the history of the planet. Then he walked away from that achievement with less ongoing compensation than Jack Welch’s apartment rentals. Hock’s mind is supple and rich and dips into sources that span time and geography and cultures.

Hock’s life and the story of Visa are fascinating, and it pulls us along, but there’s real meat in his observations about organizations and how they work and how they ought to work. There are penetrating insights into the ways that organizations have an impact on the Planet, on the economy, and on individual lives. There are insights and observations about what it means to be human.

In the end, I think this is really two books. One book is a story that goes from start to finish. It’s the story of Dee Hock. It’s the story of Visa. It’s a fascinating story, filled with lessons and examples. It’s worth buying the book for.

Then there’s the other book that is a collection of bits of observation and thought. They’re not presented in a coherent way, just plopped down into the story in separate chapters throughout the book. This is a book with less organization and more random insights. It, too, is interesting and worth the price of the book.

In the end, you can get two books – both wonderful, for the price of one.

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