cyclist suddenly races up from behind me and goes hurtling past.
I reflexively leap to one side, lose my balance, stumble over
a curb, and abruptly sit down on a patch of grass. Muttering
mild oaths under my breath, I watch as she gracefully dodges
among the joggers, baby carriages and other bikers, and quickly
disappears from sight. The juxtaposition of her balance, agility
and speed and my awkwardness at first grates on me, but then
did she learn to do that? If I got on a bike and tried
to follow her, I almost certainly would kill somebody.
some point, she had gotten onto a bike for the first time. Perhaps
a patient father explained how the pedals and brakes worked.
He may have explained that if she leaned too far to one side
or the other she would lose her balance and fall. But explanations
were only part of the learning. Her muscles, not just her brain,
had some learning to do. Her father knew this as well, running
along side her bike, holding it steady, until she could do it
on her own. And the learning continued. Learning to ride on
the sidewalk was different than learning to ride on the street
or through the forest. Brains and muscles learned independently
and learned together in every new situation they faced, finding
a deep and instantaneous integration, until they could confidently
weave in and out of the crowds strolling through the park.
agility, and speed. My mind jumps to a conversation I had that
morning with a group of software entrepreneurs. They had used
the identical terms. Each complained about how quickly their
companies lost the maneuverability they needed to survive in
an ever-changing marketplace. They needed to be fast. They needed
to be agile. They needed a way to stay balanced in the midst
of all that change. Their companies’ current single-minded foci—that
they helped put in place and that was critical to draw
investors—now made it difficult to respond to the opportunities
that would drive the next cycle of growth. Their businesses
were unbalanced. Their personal lives were unbalanced. But their
only real alternative was to go even faster.
laughed at the parallels between their companies and my youngest
daughter’s first efforts to walk. She first leaned in
the direction she wanted to go, and then had to run as fast
as she could in that direction in order to keep from falling
down. The more she leaned, the faster she had to run. She only
stopped when she hit her destination—or the floor. Her speed
maintained the illusion of balance but, unfortunately,
illusions eventually evaporate.
is no longer a sprint down a straight unencumbered track. It
is bobbing and weaving through unfamiliar landscapes at great
speed and great risk.
another cyclist comes whizzing past. This one is even more graceful
than the first. He virtually dances through the crowds, first
leaning one way and then the other, but always around the same
center of gravity. I imagine a tightrope artist balancing himself
with a long pole, agilely compensating for every motion of the
highwire with the gentle movement of his wrist: staying effortlessly
centered over a constantly moving wire…
when it all came together for me.
comes from being deeply centered, both in motion and at rest.
The common image of “balance” as a scale with equal amounts
on both sides is both trivial and misleading. Yet, when we speak
of balancing work and life, it is often the first image that
springs to mind. If we feel out of balance, we are told to add
more to what is absent or to take away what is abundant. We
think of equal opposites rather than integrated and coherent
is the ability for every part in the body to respond independently
and intelligently—without conscious control—to keep the body
centered while in motion. The “center” is not permanently
fixed, but it is best for it not to take wild swings. The more
complex the motion, the more important it is for the body to
move around the center rather than the center to move around
the body. It is possible for us to “lean” in a way that stays
centered, as the cyclist knew well, and it is possible to lean
in a way that loses control, as my daughter discovered.
when balanced and agile, is an act of confidence and a thing
of beauty. Speed without balance is an act of recklessness or
desperation. Speed is not necessary for balance. In that
same park, I saw men practicing a gentle rhythmic martial art
with extraordinary balance. But speed heightens the demands
on balance and agility, and can create the illusion of balance
when there is none. I know many people who have substituted
speed for balance. In a world like today’s, when speed is a
competitive necessity, it’s hard to fault them. But I am reminded
of the many times I found my daughter sitting stunned on the
floor after running headlong into a chest or wall, and I worry
for their futures.
is only meaningful in relation to a specific environment against
which balance is maintained. The balance that a skier maintains,
as she bounces from mogul to mogul, requires a different kind
of centering and agility than the tightrope artist. One size
of balance does not fit all. I was doing fine with my balance
as I walked along the park path until the cyclist changed that
environment abruptly, and I did not adapt rapidly enough. There
are as many different kinds of balance as there are people and
situations in the world. When it comes to balance, there are
many “right” answers.
am not an expert when it comes to individual balance. I struggle
finding a center, let alone developing the agility to stay balanced
around it. More damning, I’m afraid my daughter got her “leaning”
genes from me. I am an expert at the single-minded rush into
darkness, and I have the lumps and the bruises to prove it.
I have also learned that I am much more susceptible to losing
my balance (or never finding it!) when I am on my own. I have
a much easier time of it when I operate within a community
where everyone is trying to learn to be balanced and agile around
the same kind of “center.”
time, the siren of a distant fire engine breaks my reverie.
I realize that I am still sitting on the grass, and dampness
is permeating my clothes. I brush myself off and sit on a nearby
was avoiding thinking about a meeting I had that afternoon with
a group of healthcare professionals. They had heard the story
of how Dee Hock had transformed the banking industry with Visa.
Here’s the story:
the late 1960's, a group of banks faced the challenge of constructing
a system to exchange credit card transactions. The coming age
of electronic transactions was still on the horizon, and they
needed a system that could let them exploit it when it came.
Since no single bank could afford creating the whole system,
they had to create an organization that they could all collectively
own, all individually trust, yet would not impede competition.
In fact, it would need to enhance competition if it hoped to
pass antitrust muster. No organizational structure existed that
met these criteria. They had to invent it from scratch.
by the credit card manager of a small regional bank, Dee Hock,
a small group of bankers began working on a core set of purposes
and principles to which they believed all banks would agree.
They then steadily involved more and more banks in a process
of refining that core set of beliefs about their industry, and
began to conceptualize a possible function and initial structure
for an organization.
a year and a half of intense effort, the process was complete
and the organization that would become known as Visa came into
existence with Mr. Hock as its first CEO. The design process
had given rise to a corporation unlike any other. In 1993, Mr. Hock,
who has retired from Visa in the mid-1980s, said:
I still find it difficult to describe the organization but let me try.
In the legal sense, VISA is a non-stock, for-profit, membership corporation.
In another sense, it is an inside out holding company in that
it does not hold but is held by its functioning parts.
The financial institutions which create its products are, at one and
the same time, its owners, its members, its customers, its subjects
and its superiors.
It is an organization, the totality of which, excluding thousands of
affiliated entities, would, if converted to a stock company,
have a market value in excess of $100 billion. Yet it cannot
be bought, traded, raided or sold since membership is held in
the form of perpetual, non-transferable membership rights. However,
that portion of the business created by each member is owned
solely by them, is reflected in their stock prices and can be
sold to any other member or any entity eligible for membership,
a very broad, active market.
A staff of less than two thousand scattered in twenty-one offices in
13 countries on four continents guides this trillion-dollar
business. It has multiple boards of directors within a single,
legal entity, none of which can be considered superior or inferior,
as each has irrevocable authority and autonomy over different
geographic or functional areas. Their interests are often opposed
yet they are served by common officers and staff.
It espouses no political, economic, social or legal theory, transcending
language, currency and culture to successfully work with and
harmonize relations between countries, institutions and peoples
of every persuasion. It has gone through a number of wars and
revolutions, the belligerents continuing to share common ownership
and never ceasing reciprocal acceptance of cards or exchange
of sales drafts even though they were killing one another.
It is an organization which, in five years, transformed a troubled product
with a minority market share into a dominant market share and,
by a substantial margin, the most profitable banking service.
It has had no less than twenty and as much as fifty percent
compound annual growth, through the best and the worst of times.
Its product is the most universally used and recognized in the world,
yet the organization is so transparent its ultimate customers,
most of its affiliates and some of its members do not know it
exists or how it functions. At the same time, the central core
of the enterprise has no knowledge of, information about or
authority over a vast number of the constituent parts. No part
knows the whole, the whole does not know all the parts and none
has any need to. The entirety is self regulating.
group of healthcare professionals I was meeting this afternoon
did not grasp the story’s full meaning. They instinctively knew
that something important had happened, but they were
fixated on what Dee had done, not on how or why.
were hoping that we would give them an “answer” about creating
a governance structure that balanced the many competing interests
within their industry in a way in which no one dominated it.
They were expecting some silver bullet of organizational structure
that would solve all their problems. They were going to be disappointed
by what we had to offer. Structure enhances balance, but not
the other way around.
would tell them to forget their preconceptions of the medical
profession and how people currently interacted within it. We
would tell them there was no “chaordic model” of organization;
any more than there was a model for how life organized itself
on this planet.
would tell them first to search for the center of gravity—what
we call “purpose”—the deepest aspiration commonly shared by
a community of individuals and their institutions. Once they
found this deep balancing point, they could then begin to learn
what it meant to be agile around it, and what kind of structures
could enhance that balance and agility. Without finding it,
the best they could do is just “lean” in a promising direction.
think that all they need to do to succeed is learn how to construct
the right bike, when they first need to learn how to
ride—how to balance.
they are going to be disappointed. They are all excited to rush
out into the world and lean…
I stand up to continue my walk in the park, I notice that across
from me, under a small tree, a young mother is sitting, breastfeeding
stop. I had been so focused on the athleticism of the cyclists
that I had missed a much more powerful lesson. Here was the
essence of balance. Here was the essence of depth of purpose:
mother and child, giving and receiving both physical and emotional
nourishment, cementing the bonds of the human family.
powerful and meaningful purpose for a community is no harder
to find than one’s own physical center of gravity. It’s there.
It doesn’t have to be “invented.” We have found the most deeply
personal aspirations also tend to be those that are most deeply
common, and vice versa. Nice the way that works.
the bankers in Visa discovered that down deep they shared an
important social purpose: being a trusted conduit for the custody
and exchange of value. We sometimes joke that what is “deep”
for a banker, is not that deep for the rest of us, but it is
only a joke. That purpose was deeply centered enough to keep
more than 20,000 banks cooperating despite equally intense competition—even
long after all the participants forgot that it was founded on
a purpose other than making money. “Deep” is in the eye of the
measure of how deeply a purpose is centered is how much diversity
can be tolerated within it without losing coherence. An experienced
tightrope walker always chooses a long balancing pole over a
short one. It seems ironic, but greater range produces greater
balance, and greater balance can withstand greater range.
look back at the mother and baby. The community of which they
are a part reaches back in time for eons and, God willing, forward
for even more. Now that’s a long balancing pole.
stroll toward the park exit. After all, I have a meeting to
cyclist bumps my elbow on his way by. This time I don’t even
flinch. I’m confident. I feel balanced.
first look one way, and then the other. I decide to test my
newly found balance. I skip all the way back to the office…
Getzendanner was a founding board member of the Chaordic Alliance,
and now works full-time with the Chaordic Commons on its projects
and educational programs. Joel achieves his own balance with
the help of his loving wife and two daughters. He coaches springboard
diving at the local high school and likes to fly kites. He can
be reached at email@example.com.
of Dee Hock at meeting convened by the Joyce Foundation, October
11, 1993. Used with permission.
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