Taking on a project to change the world? Lessons from founding VISA

Every once in a while conversation will turn to trying to solve a problem that has people stumped — like the lunchtime conversation today with my friend Bruce McKendry in which we decided to take on the problem of fixing health care. Yep, you heard it here first. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Something Bruce said (“this is a problem that needs to be solved outside, or along side, the existing institutions”) reminded me of Dee Hock. ‘Bet you haven’t heard of Dee Hock, but your life has been influenced by his creation. He’s the person who led the project that created the VISA network and thus solved a problem that was vexing all the banks that were creating their own independent bank-card systems and going broke in the process.

Hock’s solution was to form a new kind of entity (VISA) which allowed the banks to cooperate and compete at the same time. The story of the creation of the VISA network is a fascinating tale. Dee Hock decided to generalize from that experience and see if he could help others apply the lessons-learned to their big complicated problems.

He made up a new word, “chaordic”, to describe this process of bringing order out of chaos and formed an organzation to carry on the work. The Chaordic Commons is their home on the ‘net.

Read on for notes, commentary and useful links into their site…

The things I like mostly revolve around Hock’s decomposition of the problem — he and his gang have put together a methodology that helps break problems into smaller bits. As a guy who does a lot of projects, I’m always taken with things that help me structure the work.

Here’s an overview of the process.

Here’s the detailed work break down of the process.

I do a fair amount of organizing in the public private partnership space, and have found this task list to be a good starting point in my thinking about project plans.

The things I don’t like are probably more a reflection about me than the Chaordic folks. Some of the stuff is a little too over the top gentler/kinder/sweetness for me — there’s an almost spiritual component of their material that doesn’t mix well with my flatulant nature. So I never present this stuff unedited.

Another observation — if this stuff is so great, howcom there aren’t other “VISA-class” success stories from people who’ve used the methodology?? Being a guy, I’ll make up an answer — I think there’s more to making this stuff work than just the structure. Leadership skills, business acumen, functional capability, great teams, etc. etc. don’t come together too often and I think Dee underplays the contributions of the VISA team that came together under those unique circumstances.

But hey, this is still great stuff. If you’re looking for some “outside of the box thinking” inspiration, look here.