Spiders and Starfish

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.

11 Responses to “Spiders and Starfish”

  1. Stephan

    Hello Harold,

    I like the idea of visualizing organizations. One of the most inspiring books for me was written by your countryman Gareth Morgan: “Images of an Organization”.

    Stephan, Germany

  2. Wendy

    Harold: I’ve been questioning why I have no desire to climb the corporate ladder. Your post really helped to clarify my thinking about how I want my career to evolve. Thanks!!!

  3. Jon Husband

    I think that in the not-too-distant future a key skill execs and managers will need and want to learn is how to choose what to centralize and what to decentralize, realizing that it is a both / and that can be accomplished suimultaneously with integrated and hyperlinked applications, the Web and interconnected people.

    The job will be to articulate and explain clearly why, how and who. And getting to that stage could or should involve both top-down questions and bottom-up responses, both focused on identifying and clarifying what will work best … a dynamic two-way flow, if you will.

  4. Christine Martell

    I hope you are feeling better soon. I find the starfish versus spider metaphor very intriguing. I think I have a pretty good idea of how it manifests in organizations, but how does it apply to our consulting practices and small businesses? I fear I may be the spider! How can I breed starfish? Guess I need to get the book. Thanks for the suggestion.

  5. Harold

    Thanks for the clarification, Jon; your insight is always appreciated.

    Christine, you’ve raised an interesting question. Culture is very important, and in a society where we worship leaders, breeding starfish may be difficult.

    Stephen Downes also asks, “but when the distributed alternatives work so well, one wonders what’s so ‘sweet’ about breaking that model, even if only a little bit”. My read on this book is that the sweet spot pertains to business models and whether one is for-profit or non-profit, you still have to generate enough income to keep whatever organization you have going. The trick is in finding the optimal model for your organization/business within its current environment, which is in constant flux.


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