“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:
- The major organs are replicated throughout each and every arm.
- It’s easy to mistake a starfish for spiders.
- An open system doesn’t have central intelligence; the intelligence is spread throughout the system.
- Open systems can easily mutate.
- The decentralized organization sneaks up on you.
- 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:
|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.