Starfish Organizations: The Key to Explosive Change

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Create or Predict Explosive Change

“There is nothing wrong with change, if it is in the right direction.” — Winston Churchill

To predict explosive change before it occurs, you need to be able to distinguish a “spider” from a “starfish.”

A starfish can replicate and spread a fluid set of ideas, beliefs, values, and norms.

This is the hidden power behind things like Wikipedia, craigslist, Skype, and even the early days of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The Spider and the Starfish

Spider and starfish are metaphors for organizations.  A traditional top-down or centralized organization is like a spider, while a decentralized organization is like a starfish.  If you cut off a spider’s head it dies, but if you cut off a starfish’s leg, it grows back.

These metaphors provide an interesting lens for looking at command and control, community organizations, organizational design, and business strategy.

Create Starfish Organizations to Create Explosive Change

These metaphors also help explain why some top-down spider organizations have failed when the head of the spider was removed and why some grass-roots efforts have spread like wild-fire without a clear leader at the top.

The key to creating explosive change, is creating effective starfish organizations.

In the book, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom share the key principles behind starfish organizations and how you can identify and distinguish a spider from a starfish.

Six Principles of Decentralization

Here are six principles of starfish according to Brafman and Beckstrom:

  1. The major organs are replicated throughout each and every arm.
  2. It’s easy to mistake a starfish for spiders.
  3. An open system doesn’t have central intelligence; the intelligence is spread throughout the system.
  4. Open systems can easily mutate.
  5. The decentralized organization sneaks up on you.
  6. As industries become decentralized, overall profits decrease.

Spider (Centralized) vs. Starfish (Decentralized) Organizations

Here is a summary of the key distinctions between a spider and starfish, according to Brafman and Beckstrom:

Centralized Decentralized
There’s someone in charge There’s no one in charge
There are headquarters There are no headquarters
If you thump it on the head, it dies If you thump it on the head, it survives
There’s a clear division of roles If you take out a unit, the organization is unharmed
Knowledge and power are concentrated Knowledge and power are distributed
The organization is rigid The organization is flexible
Units are funded by the organization Units are self-funding
You can count the participants You cannot count the participants
Working groups communicate through intermediaries Working groups communicate with each other directly

Share Values, Replicate Success

In my experience, I’ve seen several communities and groups spring up out of passion and common values.

It was the absence of centralized power and the presence of connection, values, and shared goals that spread the their success.

Because they weren’t managed top down like a business that has to make a profit, the autonomous teams thrived and drove from a fluid set of beliefs, values, and norms, and each unit had enough of the functional pieces to support the mission.

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Photo by ciel.o.

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9 COMMENTS

  1. The starfish organization really appeals to me. But is it true that as an organization decentralizes the profits go down? That seems like a downside if profit is your aim or am I missing something?

  2. @ Sandra — It’s interesting to see how the pattern of how things spread. No, profits don’t go down. However, a pattern tends to be that when a decentralized system starts generating significant revenue, it tries to centralize to protect profits.

  3. JD,
    I appreciate this analogy.

    “The key to creating explosive change, is creating effective starfish organizations.”

    I really enjoyed this, very sentimental and symbolic for me.
    Thanks so much!
    Happy July 4th!
    ~Jenn

  4. JD: I have never read the book, but I am intrigued by the approach and the distinction between a centralized and decentralized business. In terms of characteristics that positively contribute to the success of a starfish organization, it would seem that shared values and goals would definitely be at the top of the list. I have seen the chaos and challenges that result from a spider organization and I think what many of those companies lack are those shared values and goals you mentioned that were characteristic of a starfish organization. Very interesting thoughts. Thanks for sharing your insights and thoughts.

  5. @ Jenn — It’s got me thinking about how to spread our ideas and values in a starfish way. It’s a force of one multiplied.

    @ Sibyl — Shared goals and values make a big difference. I think it’s the secret ingredient of the force multiplier. When there’s a lack of shared goals or values, then it’s a divisive environment.

    @ Jannie — 🙂 It’s actually one of the ways to defeat a starfish — introduce power and try to centralize control.

    @ Alik — Yes, I think it’s the drivers. If the v-team is driven by passion and purpose, it wins over a group driven by policy or procedure.

  6. Hi JD .. I hadn’t heard of the starfish or spider type organisations before .. but I can understand the starfish one .. as I’ve just posted (previous one) about transition towns/ initiatives .. and the transition initiatives have spread like wild-fire around the globe .. communities helping themselves ..

    Really interesting to hear about .. many thanks .. Hilary

  7. @ Hilary — I saw the parallel with your town post and I thought it was perfect. It seems like the towns people bond around the values, and grow from there.

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