Chaordic Design

14.04.2020 |

Episode #3 of the course 10 tools for change by Kate Sutherland


So glad you’re here again!

Today, we delve into Chaordic Design, a framework developed by Dee Hock in the 1960s and now used worldwide.

Let’s start with a question often posed by Hock: “How much of your time do you spend circumventing stupid rules and ridiculous demands that have nothing to do with what you were hired to perform?”

If you work in a large organization, for example, you might say 50%, and that would be the norm, according to Hock. As a result, we have health care institutions that fail to cultivate healthy lifestyles, criminal justice systems that “train” criminals, and so on!

This waste of time, effort, and resources is what drove Hock to search for better ways.


Chaord and Chaordic

Hock believes the main reason that so many human systems fail to achieve their intended purpose is excessive order: Rules, regulations, procedures, and policies entangle and stifle human initiative.

On the other hand, too little structure (chaos) inhibits working well together.

The goal, in Hock’s view, is to find the optimal balance of chaos and order. He coined the word “chaordic” to express this balance: the band along the spectrum between order and chaos, where social systems are dynamic and effective and people thrive.


The Big Question Is: How?

How can we build projects, companies, institutions, and organizations that are “chaordic”? Doing so, Hock maintains, unleashes the self-organizing potential of humans to do great things together!

Reflecting on how he created the VISA credit card clearing system, the world’s first chaordic organization, Hock identified six steps of Chaordic Design.

The most important step is the first one: Get crystal clear about purpose.

Purpose is like a seed. A slight change in the framing of a shared purpose creates significant change in all that follows.

At the beginning of a new initiative or when taking stock along the way, Chaordic Design starts with the question:


“What Is Our Shared Purpose?”

Most of us tend to jump past the purpose conversation and into strategizing, fixing, action planning, or problem-solving. It takes discipline to slow down long enough to answer, “What are we really trying to do?

Clarifying a one-line statement of shared purpose gives everyone involved a North Star to navigate by whenever there are questions about how to go forward.

For example, conventionally, we might say that the purpose of the education system is “to provide our children with quality education.” A chaordic reframe might be “to cultivate happy, fulfilled, and engaged citizens who contribute their gifts to create thriving communities.”


Steps 2 and 3

Once your purpose is agreed upon, continue with the next two steps, distilled here into key questions.


• What principles follow from our purpose?

• What principles best guide how we make decisions and allocate money/rewards?

• What can we not compromise?

• What push-back can we anticipate, and what principles best guide our response to these pressures?


• Who has a stake in our purpose?

• Which stakeholders do our principles call us to invite into this process?

Teams often work iteratively, reflecting again on purpose when given new perspectives arising from conversations about principles and/or participants.

I use these first three steps for greater clarity and impact in just about everything I do!


Steps 4-6

If you are creating a new organization, initiative, or major project, it may be helpful to explore steps 4-6. These involve clarification.

Step 4: Organizational concept. Is it a cooperative? A social enterprise? A decentralized network? Or something that doesn’t exist yet? (This is often the case when designing chaordically!)

Step 5: Organizational constitution. This sets out the organizational concept as a written constitution and bylaws articulating the purpose, principles, and participants and specifying rights, obligations, and so on.

Step 6: Practices. What practices naturally follow from all your design work? Given the first five steps, Hock says that these naturally evolve in highly focused and effective ways.

Chaordic Design is often represented with a Fibonacci spiral (below) to express how its six steps help create a stable pattern. This pattern brings enough structure to allow for growth (in an ever-widening spiral), while staying true to the central/founding impulse or purpose.



For over 45 years, working “chaordically” has helped shape optimal human systems at every level, from as small-scale as a single meeting to as large-scale as the design of global corporations.

I hope you’ll try Chaordic Design soon. Don’t be surprised if the reflections/conversations take a while! Don’t get bogged down, but don’t rush the process too much either.

Tomorrow’s tool, Generative Dialogue, will strengthen your “chaordic” muscles for reflecting on assumptions and being open to new ways of seeing. You and your group are more likely to stay on purpose if you have “generative” conversations, as defined in tomorrow’s lesson.

Happy designing!



Recommended book

The Birth of the Chaordic Age by Dee Hock


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