I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better. – Maya Angelou
Grab a piece of scrap paper and draw a spider on the left side of the page and a starfish on the right.
Many of you may know this story and how it relates to leadership from the book by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom titled The Starfish and the Spider. Use a red X to cross out your spiders’ head. When the spider is threatened, and the head is damaged all the legs stop working. Controlled from the top, the spiders’ legs are incapable of independent life. A spider is a centralized creature like many organizations today.
Now draw a red line down the middle of your starfish. What happens when you cut a starfish in half? You get two starfish. If you cut off a leg, it will grow back. A starfish is an extremely decentralized creature. This makes it extraordinarily resilient. It represents the fluid adaptive organization of the future.
Why is this important?
The Starfish and the Spider outlines many principles of decentralization. I want to explore three principles:
- The first principle of decentralization is “when attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become more open and decentralized” (pg. 21). The book gives the example of the Apache Tribe. The Apaches, unlike the Incas and Aztecs, held off the Spanish for two centuries. How did they do this when other empires were taken down in just a few years? The Apaches were a decentralized society. They did not have one specific leader or hierarchy. They had spiritual and cultural leaders whose lives were dedicated to sharing their knowledge with all tribal members. In an open system such as this, decision making is distributed, and norms and sanctions are handled organically versus from the top down.
- The second principle of a decentralized organization is “an open system doesn’t have central intelligence but rather the intelligence is spread throughout the system.” One example in the book for this principle is Alcoholics Anonymous. The founder Bill W determined all proceeds of The Big Book would go back into the start-up organization. He let go of the reins and the rest is history, as they say.
- The third principle of decentralization is, “an open system can easily mutate.” The Starfish and the Spider explores the music industry and its “pirates.” Organizations like Napster kept sharing until it was stronger than the industry standard and decentralization occurred.
Many of the organizations I have worked with are focused on one question: How do we stay relevant and grow in a scalable and sustainable way in this fast-paced world of business?
Become a starfish. It sounds simple but we all know it is very difficult as performance management systems, reporting structures, and pay scales often have spiders crawling all over them. Many organizations, especially today, are somewhere on the continuum moving toward starfish but needing the spider because it feels familiar and adds order. The key element of a starfish is that it offers distributive knowledge, as mentioned in principle two above. In my experience, this concept is something that can become a value at the individual level and transform leaders, teams, stakeholder relationships, and eventually organizational culture even in a traditionally structured organization. It is a powerful way one person can make a difference even if the organization or team for which they are a part is top-down.
Knowledge is more organic than fixed and the old adage, “knowledge is power so hold it close to the vest,” is no longer relevant. In recent years, I have noticed how perishable knowledge has become. New technologies, services, and products flood the marketplace seemingly daily. Leaders and their companies must constantly renew, expand, and create on this leading edge of knowledge. Knowledge still equals power but only when it is shared. When knowledge is shared it multiplies and when it is harbored it becomes obsolete and so do those that hold on behind closed doors.
Verna Allee, a leader in knowledge management, and author of The Future of Knowledge outlines 12 guiding principles that can be instrumental in bridging the gap between a more traditional spider-like team or organizational structure to more of a starfish-like paradigm at the leader level:
- Knowledge is messy. Because knowledge is connected to everything else, you can’t isolate the knowledge aspect of anything neatly. In the knowledge universe, you can’t pay attention to just one factor.
- Knowledge is self-organizing. The self that knowledge organizes around is organizational or group identity and purpose.
- Knowledge seeks community. Knowledge wants to happen, just as life wants to happen. Both want to happen as community. Nothing illustrates this principle more than the Internet.
- Knowledge travels via language. Without a language to describe our experience, we can’t communicate what we know. Expanding organizational knowledge means that we must develop the languages we use to describe our work experience.
- The more you try to pin knowledge down, the more it slips away. It’s tempting to try to tie up knowledge as codified knowledge-documents, patents, libraries, databases, and so forth. But too much rigidity and formality regarding knowledge lead to the stultification of creativity.
- Looser is probably better. Highly adaptable systems look sloppy. The survival rate of diverse, decentralized systems is higher. That means we can waste resources and energy trying to control knowledge too tightly.
- There is no one solution. Knowledge is always changing. For the moment, the best approach to managing it is one that keeps things moving along while keeping options open.
- Knowledge doesn’t grow forever. Eventually, some knowledge is lost or dies, just as things in nature. Unlearning and letting go of old ways of thinking, even retiring whole blocks of knowledge, contribute to the vitality and evolution of knowledge.
- No one is in charge. Knowledge is a social process. That means no one person can take responsibility for collective knowledge.
- You can’t impose rules and systems. If knowledge is truly self-organizing, the most important way to advance it is to remove the barriers to self-organization. In a supportive environment, knowledge will take care of itself.
- There is no silver bullet. There is no single leverage point or best practice to advance knowledge. It must be supported at multiple levels and in a variety of ways.
- How you define knowledge determines how you manage it. The “knowledge question” can present itself in many ways. For example, concern about the ownership of knowledge leads to acquiring codified knowledge that is protected by copyrights and patents.
As leaders, spending time asking yourself where you fall in relation to sharing knowledge and therefore distributing power, is time well spent. As Carl Sandburg so simply yet profoundly penned, “Everybody is smarter than anybody.”
If you would like to read more, please contact me for a copy of an article that outlines 10 Rules Successful Decentralized Organizations Follow. This article is full of examples of organizations that fall into every area of the spectrum from top-down to fully decentralized.