Reading The Starfish and the Spider only took one day [resting with a cold] and it’s an illuminating book. Spider organizations are those with centralized control and if you cut off the head, the rest will die. In starfish organizations, cutting off one leg will not kill it, because intelligence is distributed throughout the organism. The authors start by examining the two hundred year struggle between the Apache (starfish) and the Spanish Army (spiders), showing how a decentralized Apache nation was almost impossible to conquer because there was no head. A modern day equivalent is Al Quaeda.
What I found most interesting is that the degree of centralization for an optimal organization depends on many factors, so there is no magic recipe [like informal versus formal learning]. Finding what the authors call the “sweet spot” requires constant monitoring of the environment. Today’s sweet spot may be tomorrow’s lost cause.
One of the five requirements for a successful starfish organization is to have a catalyst. In many ways, I think that is the role I’ve played, or tried to, in various organizations over the years, and it explains why I quickly lost interest in climbing the corporate ladder.
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 or 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. (p. 131)
I would recommend this book, especially the chapters on “The Hybrid Organization” and “In Search of the Sweet Spot”. The book should provide a new lens to look at your organization and its environment, whether it be for-profit, non-profit or a government agency.
If you think that decentralization is not an option for your organization, consider that your employees may strongly disagree, as reported by Ross Dawson:
In the first boom we [WPP Group] lost a lot of our staff to start-ups. When the companies failed, many came back to work for us. At the re-entry interviews, they didn’t say they were grateful to have a job. They said to a man and woman that if they could go back to work in a more unstructured and flexible work environment they’d go in a heartbeat.