Starfish and the Spider


The Starfish and the Spider

Over the past weeks, I had some extra time on my hands, one of the ways in which I used this was to readThe Starfish and the Spider, the unstoppable power of leaderless organizations’ by Ordi Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, accidental authors.

Below are some excerpts from the book and I suggest several reasons why I think that this book is of interest to those who are working on crossing borderlines between content subjects,  international development and globalisation, or exploring why hierarchy and centralisation are often not effective. Brafman  and Beckstrom convincingly explore the difference between being and encouraging ‘catalysts’ and ‘champions’. The hybrid form is added. To me these concepts or roles are useful for the work I do. Along the way useful principles of decentralisation are presented. The book has helped me look at an organisation struggling with a leadership issue, identifying an organisations core role and essence and has helped me (co)define the core values of an organisation.

To start off ‘the Starfish and the Spider’ is a good read as it is more than another business book. It is written in accessible language and the size of the book is the average pocket, adding some practical appeal. The intriguing metaphor of the Starfish and the Spider is explored and by explaining the parallels between the demise and the growth of successful companies and social movements. Think of the changing face of the record industry, e-Bay and the Apache, spread of Skype, Alcoholics Anonymous, growth of the wikipedia and Al Queda,. For starters: starfish can regenerate, while spiders can rebuild their web, physical threat makes them dysfunctional.

Using different stories, their own observations and conversations they identify principles of decentralisation. Some of these principles are recognisable from systems thinking, and complexity theories, I suggest you make your choice and work from there. The examples and principles work well.

  1. When attacked (or threatened) a decentralised organisation tends to become even more open and decentralised. The same can also happen in your brain with patterns of neurons…
  2. It is easy to mistake a starfish for spiders. The approach to handle this is to look at the system/organisation from multiple perspectives, a variation of analysis and tools is essential.
  3. An open (decentralised) system does not have central ‘intelligence’, the intelligence is spread throughout the system.
  4. Open decentralised systems can easily mutate into further models.
  5. Decentralised organisations sneak up on you.
  6. As industries become decentralised, overall profits decrease. A great anecdote about French investors asking about who is in charge of the Internet.
  7. Put people into an open system and they will automatically want to contribute …

The comparison of centralised versus decentralised system provides a useful check list. Recognising a starfish organisation or movement depends on several characteristics, one of them being a catalyst. Let’s focus on the catalyst. His tools are a genuine interest in others, values loose connections, maps relations and activities, has a desire to be of assistance, meets people where they are – this is based on emotional intelligence, brings inspiration and offers trust; tolerates ambiguity; has a hands off approach and knows how to leave the scene without a bang or loss of activity and movement.

They pitch the catalyst versus the CEO or centralised operator/expert: peer – the boss; trust –command and control; emotionally intelligent – rationalistic; inspirational – powerful; collaborative – directive; behind the scene – seeks the spotlight; ambiguity – law and order; connecting – organising. There are a number of proven coping strategies at organisational level, these can be summed up as: change the ideology of the decentralised organisation; by offering a lump sum, force them to formally come together (= centralise); if you can’t beat them, join them…  so decentralise. Beware that decentralisation is based on (in)formal networks and social marketing runs against the dominant thinking of economies of scale and the move to standardisation. The hybrid organisations that combine the catalyst role with being a champion have moved in this direction by adopting ‘appreciative inquiry’ (Cooperider & Whitney) and Drucker’s principle of looking for the ‘organisational sweet spot’, an intriguing quest. Although the authors finish their book with a summing of ten rules, this does not really work, as this last chapter inevitably tastes, like a blue print or standard operating clauses.

The authors have set up an open page in Wikipedia and one of the links is to a series of questions, it might be worthwhile to explore these.

Happy reading, Russell

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