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The Starfish and the Spider: A Metaphor for the Future

The future shape of organizations and their leadership



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Stephen Langton, Managing Director, Deloitte Center for Strategic Leadership, takes a seasonally inspired look at the future shape of organizations and their leadership.

It’s August and in many Western countries thoughts have turned to summer vacation. People are fleeing the cities for the sea. Commercial centres like Milan, demonically hot and humid in the summer, will resemble ghost towns.

 Even in London, where cranking up the air conditioning is rarely necessary, it’s a business truism that “you can’t get anything done in August.”

When school’s out, so are families – bound for airports, or highways, or both but, generally, for a beach.

For those who find beaches a bit boring, I’ve got something new to while away the hours. But don’t worry, it’s not a Deloitte’s guide to global accounting principles. It’s a game (and it’s not “I spy”). I call it “Spot the metaphor,” and I owe it all to management writers Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, authors of the The Starfish and the Spider: The unstoppable power of leaderless organizations.

According to Brafman and Beckstrom, the starfish is the shape of things to come. A creature with no central nervous system, the humble echinoderm represents the fluid, adaptive organization of the future. Cut it in two and it doesn’t die: it becomes two starfish, each of them capable of independent life. This makes it extraordinarily resilient. In their book, Brafman and Beckstrom cite the original Napster music file-sharing service as an example of an irrepressible starfish. Sued by record companies and shut down by a court order in 2001, the old Napster spawned smaller, less detectable, copycat services. “The arms of downloadable music” increased. In trying to tread on a starfish, the music business (to mix metaphors) shot itself in the foot: instead of one rival, it got several.

To spot the metaphorical opposite of the modern, decentralized organization, you might, depending on where you’re holidaying, have to go behind or inside the beach hut or look under the jetty or boat. At the opposite end of the spectrum of Brafman and Beckstrom’s management models is, yes, you’ve guessed it, the spider organization. Controlled from the top, the spider’s “legs” are incapable of independent life. They lack the defence system of the spider; when the head can’t hack it and it’s threatened by a rival, they all go down.

Flexibility is just one of the starfish’s advantages. A bottom-up model, it empowers the individual, fulfilling the higher level human needs, famously defined by Abraham Maslow as “self-actualization.” Encouraged to solve their own problems and think creatively, starfish people are satisfied people—and their commitment to the organization is therefore strong. They’re strategically ready and good in a crisis.

“Hang on a minute, though,” you might say. “With all these ‘headless’ arms and legs sprouting all over the place, what’s holding the thing together?” The answer is common ideology. The parts of the starfish are connected by “catalysts” and “champions,” people with the initiative to start new but related projects, and people with the vision to promote and preserve the organization’s core values.

Too wishy-washy for you? Well, you don’t have to go the whole nine yards and “transition” totally to the starfish enterprise. Brafman and Beckstrom note that many organizations are choosing to import some of the “softer” elements of the starfish – for example, knowledge sharing and empowerment—while leaving their original structures more or less intact.

So perhaps this summer we should see the future not just in the starfish in the sand but also in the cobweb in that maybe-seen-better-days hotel we’re staying in. As the old proverb says, “If you want to live and thrive, let the spider run alive.” Put another way, there might still be a place for traditional, top-down, hierarchical command and control in today’s management world.

 




 
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