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Section I - Playing the Game of Life
Chapter 4 - Organizing for the Game of Life

The more our world functions like the natural world, the more likely we are to endure on this home that is ours, but not ours alone.

Janine Benyus,
Innovation Inspired by Nature


When have you been in an organization setting - work, family or community - where activities flowed smoothly and without hierarchical constraints?

In the Fall of 1994, I had the pleasure of attending the Systems Thinking in Action Conference. One of the keynote speakers was Dee Hock, who coined the phrase the ‘chaord'. It's a combination of the two words ‘chaos' and ‘order,' and shows us that very complex situations that might normally seem chaotic can be made quite orderly with a minimal infrastructure, simple processes, clear purpose, a small number of guiding principles, and the capability to blend apparent opposites. Mr. Hock's revelation was manifest in his work for Bank of America, where he headed up the creation of the Visa credit card. His premise was that a simple structure could be implemented in which all merchants and customers could easily transact their business electronically without exchanging money. The elegance of his system has made it convenient and simple for each of us to participate, and a trillion dollar industry now exists. 

Immediately following Mr. Hock's keynote address, I ran into a colleague who participated with me on a small team that had done a study for the State of Oregon on what an ‘Excellent Public K-12 Education System' might look like. We literally jumped into each other arms, because we had just heard an articulation of the organization that we felt was so key to the success of public education.

Let me digress a moment. For reasons that I will explain later, I was asked to head up a ‘World Class Standards' Task Force for the Oregon Department of Education. Not being a ‘standards guy' I politely declined, but agreed to attend a couple of their meetings. I asked them, ‘Why do you want world class standards?' and they replied, ‘Because we want a world class education system'. I then asked them, ‘What does a world class education system look like?' and they replied, ‘We don't know.' I told them that I had no idea how to develop standards for what I didn't know, and that if they wanted me to help them, I'd have to understand what constitutes a ‘world class education system.' To my complete surprise they said ‘okay,' and worked with me to re-staff a new committee.

In my career with IBM, one of my forte`s was working on teams to develop simple, elegant architectures for complex systems. Clarity of purpose and consistency with deeply embedded guiding principles are paramount for this sort of work. Our newly formed ‘Excellent Education' study team agreed that all of the information we felt we needed was contained in three highly purposeful and principled information sources:

  1. Thomas Jefferson's rationale for public schooling in America;
  2. Current education best practices; and
  3. ‘Oregon Shines' - a document about who Oregonians wish to be in the year 2040.

1- Thomas Jefferson was very clear about the necessity for a quality public education system if ‘we the people' were to have both the ethic and the knowledge to participate fully in the democratic process, make wise decisions, and maintain civility. What I didn't understand at the time was the deeply ethical, spiritual compass he shared with many of the other Founding Fathers that is the essence of such writings as our Constitution, Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence. These documents are so well-grounded in principles that they have stood the test of time virtually unaltered. And yet, there was a capacity to compromise so that we could be a ‘United States.'

2- ‘Current best practices' turned out to be both abundant and well-documented. These practices were created by innovative educators who each exhibited principled purposefulness. There are several examples of Thomas Jefferson's desired curricula among the best practices. Unfortunately, we found deep systemic problems in the current education system that discouraged creation, recognition, and sharing of new best practices.

3- Looking at who we wish to be five decades in the future may have been uniquely opportune in Oregon. A state agency, the Oregon Progress Board, had held conversations all over the state asking people what they wanted for themselves and their offspring fifty years hence. They called these desires ‘benchmarks', and the agency provided one of their staff to help us define at a very high level the public education component of each benchmark.

We presented our plans and findings at regular intervals and were encouraged to continue. When it came time for the final presentation, it became clear that the Department of Education folks were still looking for the ‘World Class Standards,' and there was significant discomfort with our work. Our report focused on how standards might be derived and how they should be used, rather than specifically what they are. But more important, we had defined a much more relational way for schools to be, and it couldn't be mapped into the hierarchical ways of the state Department of Education.

The specific work was rejected by the Oregon Department of Education, but there was recognition on my part that guiding principles are both the essence of simple, elegant structure, as well as a statement of who we wish to be. When educational issues are raised, I find that solutions are often available in the context of our ‘Excellent Public Education' document, and they are often very different, sometimes diametrically opposed to those solutions developed by educators and politicians. Two such issues are a) how we should approach funding for Oregon's public education; and b) articulating the benefits and deficiencies of using standards the way we do. My primary intent isn't to articulate solutions to issues, but to articulate how structure influences behavior, and how we have a very different way available to us for organizing.

There may still be a question in the reader's mind as to how the chaord, and how it informs us about organizations, is relevant to public education. What our small group had described were schools that operate primarily as ‘learning organizations,' which in James Carse's terminology is ‘education'. He distinguishes very clearly between ‘training' and ‘education', where the former is a finite game and the latter an infinite game. He says, "We train children so there won't be surprises in their lives; we educate them so that they will welcome surprises in their lives." Our group was very clear that these two apparent opposites, training and education, needed to be blended, and that our primary responsibility was to educate. The chaord is primarily an infinite game within which its participants play a myriad of finite games.

Hock's ideas aren't new - his underlying model was nature, and he followed in the footsteps of our Founding Fathers who gave us the chaord of our democracy; of the technicians who developed the internet; and of all the civilizations and organizations that essentially have played the infinite game of community.


Please share a situation where you were participating in the chaord without knowing.

What was the situation and what was the purpose?
How would you describe the simplicity of the structure?
What were the guiding principles?
What emerged?


Rev. 2009-02-02 MOM



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