starfish-and-the-spider.jpgI recently finished reading “The Starfish and The Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations” by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom. While the book deals primarily with business issues I found the research on decentralized organizations by Brafman and Beckstrom to be very applicable to the church.

The title of the book comes from the analogous use of the starfish and the spider. A spider has eight legs coming out of a central body. It has a tiny head and eight eyes. If you cut off the spider’s head, it dies. It may survive without a leg or two or even stand to lose a couple of eyes, but it certainly can’t live without its head.

On the other hand, while a starfish may appear to be similar to the central body and multiple legs of the spider, it is really quite different. The starfish doesn’t have a head. Its central body isn’t even in charge. In fact, the major organs are replicated throughout each and every arm. If you cut the starfish in half, the animal won’t die and pretty soon you’ll have two starfish.

The authors provide an entertaining description of the starfish system:

Starfish have an incredible quality to them: If you cut an arm off, most of these animals grow a new arm. And with some varieties, such as the Linckia, or long-armed starfish, the animal can replicate itself from just a single piece of an arm. You can cut the Linckia into a bunch of pieces, and each one will regenerate into a whole new starfish. They can achieve this magical regeneration because in reality a starfish is a neural network – basically a network of cells. Instead of having a head, like a spider, the starfish functions as a decentralized network. Get this: for the starfish to move, one of the arms must convince the other arms that it’s a good idea to do so. The arm starts moving and then – in a process that no one fully understands – the other arms cooperate and move as well. The brain doesn’t “yea” or “nay” the decision. In truth, there isn’t even a brain to declare a “yea” or “nay.” The starfish doesn’t have a brain. There is no central command. Biologists are still scratching their heads over how this creature operates.

With the analogy firmly in place the authors precede to illustrate the power of decentralized organizations in today’s internet savvy world (using examples as varied as eBay, al Qaeda, eMule, Craigslist, AA, and Wikipedia) with those that are much more centralized. In the midst of this discussion they offer six principles of decentralization:

1. When attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more open and decentralized.

2. It’s easy to mistake 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.

But how does one go about identifying a Starfish organization? The answer is found in asking the right questions:

1. Is there a person in charge?

2. Are there headquarters?

3. If you thump it on the head, will it die?

4. Is there a clear division of roles?

5. If you take out a unit, is the organization harmed?

6. Are knowledge & power concentrated or distributed?

7. Is the organization flexible or rigid?

8. Can you count the employees or participants?

9. Are working groupls funded by the organization, or are they self-funding?

10. Do working groups communicate directly or through intermediaries?

The authors contend that a decentralized organization stands on five legs. As with the starfish, it can lose a leg or two and still survive. But when you have all the legs working together, a decentralized organization can really take off. These “legs” include:

Leg 1. Circles. Small, nonhierarchical groups of people with each group maintaining its own particular habits and norms.

Leg 2. The Catalyst. The person who initiates a circle and then fades away into the background.

Leg 3. Ideology. The glue that holds decentralized organizations together.

Leg 4. A Preexisting Network. Infrastructure or preexisting platform to launch from.

Leg 5. A Champion. A relentless promoter of the new idea.

One of the most helpful aspects of this portion of the book comes in a chapter titled “The Hidden Power of the Catalyst.” The following chart summarizes the different tools that the CEO and catalysts type of leader draws upon:

CEO                    vs.                 Catalyst

The Boss                                  A Peer
Command & Control              Trust
Powerful                                    Inspirational
Directive                                    Collaborative
In the Spotlight                         Behind the Scenes
Order                                          Ambiguity
Organizing                                Connecting

The authors conclude this chapter by stating:

This type of leadership isn’t ideal for all situations. Catalysts are bound to rock the boat. They are much better at being agents of change than guardians of tradition. Catalysts do well in situations that call for radical change and creative thinking. They bring innovation, but they’re also likely to create a certain amount of chaos and ambiguity. Put them into a structured environment, and they might suffocate. But let them dream and they’ll thrive. (can anyone say “church planter”)

In the final chapter the authors offer what they perceive to be the “new rules to the game” in regards to understanding and capitalizing on the power of decentralized organizations:

Rule 1: Dis-economies of Scale

Traditionally, the bigger the company or institution the greater the power. However, as counterintuitive as this sounds, it can be better to be small. . . . We have entered a new world where being small can provide a fundamental economic advantage.

Rule 2: The Network Effect

The network effect is the increase in the overall value of the network with the addition of each new member. “Often without spending a dime, starfish organizations create communities where each new member adds value to the larger network. . . . Companies like eBay have used the network effect not only to survive but to thrive: buyers and sellers have stayed loyal to the site because of the value of network.

Rule 3: The Power of Chaos

Starfish systems are wonderful incubators for creative, destructive, innovative, or crazy ideas. Anything goes. Good ideas will attract more people, and in a circle they’ll execute the plan. Institute order and rigid structure, and while you may achieve standardization, you’ll also squelch creativity. Where creativity is valuable, learning to accept chaos is a must.

Rule 4: Knowledge at the Edge

In starfish organizations, knowledge is spread throughout the organization. Wikipedia may be the best example of this rule.

Rule 5: Everyone Wants to Contribute

Not only do people throughout a starfish have knowledge, but they also have a fundamental desire to share and to contribute. Once again is the example of Wikipedia or free book reviews on Amazon.

Rule 6: Beware the Hydra Response

Attack a decentralized organization and you’ll soon be reminded of Hydra, the many-headed beast of Greek mythology. If you cut off one head, two more will grow in its place.

Rule 7: Catalysts Rule

Catalysts are crucial to decentralized organizations! But it is not because they are in control but because they inspire people to action.

Rule 8: The Values are the Organization

Idology is the fuel that drives the decentralized organization. Most successful starfish organizations were started with what seemed at the time to be a radical ideology.

Rule 9: Measure, Monitor, and Manage

Just because starfish organizations tend to be ambiguous and chaotic doesn’t mean that their results can’t be measured. But when measuring a decentralized network, it’s better to “be vaguely right than precisely wrong.” Even if we could, it wouldn’t really matter if we were able to get a precise count of how many members are in a network. What matters more is looking at circles. How active are they? How distributed is the network?

Rule 10: Flatten or Be Flattened

There are ways to fight a decentralized organization. We can change members’ ideology or try to centralize the organization. But often the best hope for survival if we can’t beat them is to join them.

Finally, I found much of the discussion throughout the book to relate directly to the form and function of the church. I guess as you have read this summary you have made application to the church as well. Specifically the Starfish and the Spider brought me back several times to Alan Hirsch’s chapter on organic systems in The Forgotten Ways. Hirsch continuously emphasizes the need to move away from institutional forms of organization and recover a movement ethos that includes a starfish like, decentralized network. In chapter 7 Hirsch writes:

What is clear is that movements have a very different composition and feel to that of the denominational institutions we had become. The differences are nothing less than paradigmatic. H.R. Niebuhr noted that “there are essential differences between an institution and a movement: The one is conservative, the other progressive; the one is more or less passive yielding to influences from the outside, the other is active in influencing rather than being influenced; the one looks to the past, the other to the future. In addition the one is anxious, the other is prepared to take risks; the one guards boundaries, the other crosses them.”