Re-imagining organisations: the starfish

By 7 June 2023 No Comments

Is your organisation a spider or a starfish? In other words, does your business structure allow for continuity, flexibility and agility?

In today’s rapidly changing business landscape, traditional organisational structures are often too rigid to keep pace with the demands of the market. Companies that rely on a centralised, top-down approach are vulnerable to disruptions and may struggle to adapt to new challenges. Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom’s book, “The Starfish and the Spider,” presents a compelling case for re-imagining organisational structures as “starfish” to ensure continuity and resilience.

The metaphor of the starfish is used to describe a decentralised organisation that has no central brain or control centre, but instead, relies on the collective intelligence and autonomy of its individual parts. Unlike a spider, which can be immobilised if its head is cut off, a starfish can survive and even thrive without a central command structure. Each of its arms can function independently, allowing it to regenerate and adapt to changing environments. When there’s no one in charge, you’d think there would be disorder, even chaos. But in many arenas, a lack of traditional leadership is giving rise to powerful groups that are turning industries and society upside down.

The starfish model has several advantages over traditional organisational structures. First, it enables organisations to be more agile and responsive to changes in the market. Without the need for centralised decision-making, decisions can be made more quickly, and the organisation can be nimbler in adapting to new challenges. Second, it fosters innovation and creativity by empowering individuals to take ownership of their work and explore new ideas. Third, it creates a more resilient organisation that can withstand disruptions and adapt to new challenges. Fourth, it empowers more people to become decision-makers without the need to consult with the top.

To adopt the starfish model, organisations must first recognise the importance of decentralisation and autonomy. This requires a shift in mindset from the top-down, command-and-control approach to a more collaborative, networked approach. It also requires willingness to relinquish control and trust in the collective intelligence of the organisation. 

Another key aspect of the starfish model is the importance of building a strong network of interconnected parts. Just like the arms of a starfish, each part of the organisation must be able to communicate and collaborate with others to achieve common goals. This requires a culture of transparency, openness, and trust, where information is shared freely, and collaboration is encouraged.

A decentralised organisation (starfish) stands on five legs, which are: 

  1. Circles: Instead of rules, circles depend on norms. Circles are important to nearly every decentralised organisation. Once you join a circle, you’re an equal.
  2. Catalyst: In open organisations, a catalyst is the person who initiates a circle and then fades into the background. A catalyst gets the decentralised organisation going and then cedes control to the members. In letting go of the leadership role, the catalyst transfers ownership and responsibility to the circle.
  3. Ideology: Ideology is the glue that holds decentralised organisations together. Ideology is the shared philosophy among members.
  4. The Pre-existing Network: Decentralised networks are much more conducive to serving as platforms for budding starfish organisations. Typically, it takes the special skills of a catalyst to enter a network. But the Internet changed everything.
  5. The Champion: A champion is relentless in promoting a new idea. Catalysts inspire and naturally connect people, but there’s nothing subtle about the champion.

A starfish organisation can lose a leg or two and still survive. But when you have all the legs working together, a decentralised organisation can really take off.

Can this really work?

If you are struggling to think of an example of an organisation that works in this way, consider Alcoholics Anonymous. While the ethos, philosophy, processes and procedures are always consistent, the operations and existence of an AA group based in South London is of no consequence to the operations of an AA group in Nottingham. Should something happen to one it doesn’t affect the other, similarly if an important decision needs to be made with regards to e.g. finance there is no need to get this approved by the headquarters. Ultimately the biggest challenged for spider organisations is their ability to make decisions quickly.

While most leaders I know, advocate for collaboration very few (if any) truly empower their teams to make decisions without their involvement, which often leads to unnecessary bottlenecks and holdups. And what happens, if the main leader or the leadership team are out of action for reasons beyond their control? Well, the entire organisation becomes paralysed at first. If you’d like to be more agile and resilient, we suggest you ask yourself the following questions that we picked for you from the book and consider introducing a few changes:

A spider or a starfish?

  • If you thump it on the head, does it die (like a spider) or survive (like a starfish)
  • If you take out an organisational unit, is the overall organisation harmed?
  • Are knowledge and power concentrated or distributed?
  • Do groups communicate directly with each other or via the top?
  • Is the organisation flexible or rigid?

The hybrid model: Derfish 

In practice very few organisations are truly like a starfish. Most are a fusion of the two models, what we call the ‘derfish’. This is the hybrid model: a combination of a starfish and a spider. eBay is a great example of this. Companies like eBay combine the bottom-up approach of decentralisation and the structure, control and resulting profit potential of centralisation. They are a centralised organisation that decentralises the customer experience.

The hybrid model often requires a constant balancing act. These companies must seek the elusive “sweet spot.” Yet, this is what is required to survive. As modern organisations are becoming more and more decentralised and benefitting from fast scaling opportunities, top-down structures need to take the hybrid approach to remain competitive. Flatten or be flattened. Although decentralised organisations may appear at first glance to be chaotic, once you appreciate their potential for continuity and agility, what once looked like entropy turns out to be a powerful force for success.

Rod Beckstrom – The Starfish and the Spider

Leave a Reply