14 December 2008

The starfish and the spider

Filed under: books, catalysts, ecosystem management, Open Source — David Wood @ 11:43 pm

In my quest to understand the full potential of open and collaborative methods of working, I recently found myself re-reading “The Starfish and the Spider: The unstoppable power of leaderless organisations” by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom.

I found this book to be utterly engrossing. I expect that its metaphor of the starfish vs. the spider will increasingly enter common parlance – the same way as “Tipping Point” did. In short:

  • A starfish has a fully de-centralised nervous system, and can survive and prosper when it undergoes an apparent “head-on” attack;
  • A spider has a CEO and a corporate headquarters, without which it cannot function.

The examples in the book show why there’s a great deal at stake behind this contrast: issues of commercial revenues, the rise and fall of businesses, the operation of the Internet, and the rise and fall of change movements within society – where the change movements include such humdingers as Slave Emancipation, Female Equality, Animal Liberation, and Al Qaeda.

There are many stories running through the book, chosen both from history and from contemporary events. The stories are frequently picked up again from chapter to chapter, with key additional insights being drawn out. I found some of the stories to be familiar, but others were not. In all cases, the starfish/spider framework cast new light.

The book contains many implications for the question of how best to inspire and guide an open source ecosystem. Each chapter brought an important additional point to the analysis. For example:

  • Factors allowing de-centralised organisations to flourish;
  • The importance of self-organising “circles”;
  • The significance of so-called “catalyst” personalities;
  • How successful de-centralised organisations often piggy-back pre-existing networks;
  • How centralised organisations can go about combatting de-centralised opponents;
  • Issues about combining aspects of both approaches.

Regarding hybrid approaches: the book argues that smart de-centralisation moves by both GE and Toyota are responsible for significant commercial successes in these companies. EBay is another example of a hybrid. Managing an open source community surely also falls into this category.

The book spoke personally to me on another level. As it explains, starfish organisations depend upon so-called “catalyst” figures, who may lack formal authority, and who are prepared to move into the background without clinging to power:

  • Catalysts enable major reactions to take place, that would otherwise remain dormant;
  • They trigger the deployments of huge resources from the environment;
  • They make things happen, not by direct power, but by force of influence and inspiration.

There’s a big difference between catalysts and CEOs. Think “Mary Poppins” rather than “Maria from Sound of Music”. That gave me a handy new way of thinking about my own role in organisations. (I’m like Mary Poppins, rather than Maria! I tend to move on from the departments that I build up, rather than remaining in place.)

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