by, L. Michael Hall Ph. D.
Is it possible to write a whole book about seeking to create a whole newkind of organization, a self-actualization company, and never use those phrase self-actualization? Is it possible to read such a book and not even realize that it is a book seeking to create an organization that is so new and radical that it meets all of the criteria of what we call “self-actualization?” My sad answer to these questions is that “Yes, it is possible.” That’s because Dee Hock wrote the book without using the terminology and that’s because I read his book without realizing what it is truly about. Here’s the story and the amazing discovery that I made.
Dee Hock was the founder and CEO of VISA international and when he retired, he became the CEO Emeritus. Then in 1991 he became one of thirty living Laureates of the Business Hall of Fame. “In 1992 he was recognized as one of the eight individuals who most changed the way people live in the past quarter century.” Pretty impressive, right? Well, that’s just the beginning. There’s a lot more.
If there was ever an unconventional CEO, a CEO who didn’t fit the image or title, a CEO who wrote against the whole way organizations are structured and run-it was Dee Hock. In this book which is both his autobiography and his description of the birth of VISA, he describes himself as a “lamb” in his early decades of his career-a lamb in the midst of the wolves of business. He describes himself as a country boy, raised with very little and for most of his career making very little and all along observing and hating all of the worst features of modern corporations.
He also describes himself as a thinker and philosopher at heart- someone who kept thinking that there had to be a better way to organize organizations. Now what I found amazing- even to the point of being incredible- is that in the process Dee Hock, long before NLP, denominalized many of the facets of organizations and got to “the essences” of organizational life and then identified most of the features of a self-actualizing company. He did that without NLP training. He did that, apparently, without reading anything from Maslow, Rogers, or the early Human Potential Movement leaders.
Consider his de-nominalizing activities. Without knowing that a set of actions (which should be described by a verb) can be nounified (nominalized) to create a false noun which sounds like a real “thing,” but is not, Dee Hock in his book, Birth of the Chaordic Age (1999) de-nominalized numerous false nouns: Leadership, organization, money, corporations, accounting, banking, governance. Now, of course, he doesn’t call this de-nominalizing. How could he? He was no linguist. He apparently knew nothing about Transformational Grammar (TG). In fact, he was doing his work while Noam Chomsky was developing TG. He called this process peeling the onion. And he went about “peeling the onion with questions” (p. 266), questions that challenged the specifics of the word, indexing questions about what, when, where, how, which, in what way, etc. About “corporations” he wrote that: “If it [the new organization] was to be different, we must peel the corporate onion to its essence. We began with the dry skeletons one finds in the dusty closets of dictionary and encyclopedia.” (167)
Now in the process he discovered something that we know in philosophy, in NLP, in Neuro-Semantics- an organization and what we call a “corporation” is a “mental abstraction.” “Organizations exist only in the mind; they are no more than conceptual embodiments of the ancient idea of community.” (11).
“Institutions are not a law of nature … institutions are the creations of people. … The problem arises from the pervasive habit of perceiving an institution as a tangible, physical reality, such as a building or a machine. So , when anyone began to talk or act as though a company had such reality; I would assure them that it was a fiction, that it did not exist. Most would argue vociferously that it certainly did. I would test their convictions with a simple exercise . . .
“Surely you have seen it. What color is it? No? Well, then, you must have smelled it from time to time. Describe its odor. No? Then surely you’ve tasted it. So it sweet or sour, tart or bland? You don’t know? Well, you must have touched it often. Is it hot or cold, hard or soft? No? Then, without doubt you have heard it. Make its sound. No? Can you perceive the company you work for , or any other organization, whether political, social, or commercial, with any of your senses? Obviously not. . . perhaps it’s a fiction.
“The truth is that a commercial company, or for that matter, any organization, is nothing but an idea. All institutions are no more than a mental construct to which people are drawn in pursuit of common purpose; a conceptual embodiment of a very old, very powerful idea called community. All organizations can be no more and no less than the moving force of the mind, heart, and spirit of people, without which all assets are just so much inert mineral, chemical, or vegetable mater…” (119)
If I didn’t know the source of that quotation, I would bet the author knew NLP. But no. By recognizing that the language of company, organization, corporation, etc. is at the level of abstraction and not at the level of empirical sensory-based information, Hock was able to get to the essence of this concept and begin to re-conceptualize it.
He did the same thing with term “money.” “I continued to peel our onion of understanding looking for the essence of money.” (122). He did that because he was in the banking industry and of course, banking has to do with money-saving, loaning, investing, etc. “Peeling this onion of understanding was enough to make us cry. The essence of money seemed to be everywhere, yet nowhere. But we had to understand. More research, more digging, more connections. … [then]… Our perceptions began to change. It was as though we could now see with different eyes. Even more, with a different mind. Even beyond that: with a different consciousness, and it was incredibly exciting. … We continued to peel the onion. Just what was the nature of the business [banking] in which we were engaged?” (123)
Dee Hock discovered back in the early 1960s what I discovered much, much later and wrote in the book Inside-Out Wealth-something I discovered through the key thinkers in the field of wealth creation. Money isn’t wealth. And wealth is certainty not limited to money (financial wealth), it is much more holistic than that. “What was money? … Money was not coin, currency, or credit card. That was the form, not function. Money was anything customarily used as a measure of equivalent value and medium of exchange.” (121) “The realization slowly dawned t hat money had become alphanumeric symbols recorded and transported on valueless metal and paper … a gap in understanding, for symbols themselves have no value. Anyone could write down letters and numbers…”
Then the discovery came:
“Money had become guaranteed alphanumeric data expressed in the currency symbol of one country or another. Thus, a bank was no more than an institution for the custody, loan, and exchange of guaranteed alphanumeric data.” (122)
Now he had to figure out what data or information was. And for that he turned to Gregory Bateson: “information is a difference that makes a difference.” And that led him to understand that unlike the world of tangible things- things t hat you can handle and manipulate, that you can count and weigh- the world of intangible things like ideas, data, information work by an en tirely different principle. They work not by the principle of scarcity but by the principle of abundance.
“Unlike finite physical resources, information multiplies by transfer and is not depleted by use. Information transferred is not lost to the source yet is a gain to the recipient. Information an be utilized by everyone without loss to anyone. … It obeys only concepts and principles of infinite abundance…” (199)
And in this way, while never using the language of D-needs (deficiency) or B-needs (being and abundance), Hock was re-imagining one of the most staid and dry and tangible institutions of them all- Banking. And out of that eventually came a whole new type of organization-what I call a Self-Actualizing Company, but which he called a Chaordic organization.
There’s a lot more to this story. So until next time- if you don’t know how to de-nominalize, at least use precision questions to peel back the onion of abstraction in the vague words that we all swim in everyday! And if tears come from peeling the onion- know they are tears of joy and discovery of the real world.