Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Spider and the Starfish

I recently completed an interesting book geared toward business leaders, entitled *The Spider and the Starfish: the Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.* Anyone reared in the Internet age knows the ascendency of Napster, the consequent legal wrangling with major record companies, and then the subsequent development of more open source, file-sharing networks like Kazaa, and eventually (one I've never heard of) eMule. The authors of this book use this recent history as a foray into the world of open-source, decentralized and networked leadership within business. Their argument, which was quite compelling, was that when the big boys (i.e. hierarchical, CEO-driven companies) try and take on the up-and-comers that have little to no centralization, they may win small battles, but ultimately lose the war.

The decentralized, starfish organizations self-replicate. If you cut off a leg, another starfish is born and it actually leads to further decentralization and thus is harder to stop. They used Al-Qaeda as an example. The hardest part of fighting this so-called war on terror has been trying to actually find an enemy. Contrary to perception, bin Laden is not the leader, but merely a catalyst for terrorist cells, and if you root out one cell, others quickly fill in the gap. They also looked at the unsuccessful attempts by the Spanish to control and overtake the Apaches in the Southwestern United States. As a decentralized community of Native Americans, you simply couldn't attack a chief or leader like the Spanish were able to do with Montezuma and the Aztecs. The Apaches were too fluid, too able to adjust their ways and continue. It wasn't until they introduced cattle into their culture, thereby eliminating their nomadism and creating a type of hierarchy that the Spanish were able to stop them.

They also looked at the way in which this flattened approach to reality was built upon the idea of community. They used Wikipedia as their example of this (along with craigslist). Here the members care about one another, so that when things that are detrimental to the organization start to happen, self-policing takes place and the problem is quickly remedied. Of course there are drawbacks, and so these authors were not suggesting completely leaderless approaches to business. Businesses still want to make money, and there is not much money to be made when there is complete decentralization. Instead, they argued for a hybrid organization, like Amazon, Google and Ebay, which have done a remarkably successful job of implementing decentralized ideas and elements within a bounded framework. This creates a feeling of that there is direction and some leadership, but it is a leadership concerned with creating contributors. That is, the leadership is flexible and responsive to its community members, and the success depends less on their final decision-making power and more on their ability to catalyze its members to make decisions which build the community.

I'm not all that interested in business, but what drew me to this title were the parallels to how many Emergent and younger generation churches approach their communities of faith. I saw considerable overlap with the picture of church painted by Acts and the hybrid organization. There were leaders, but they were about empowering their community to be Christ's witnesses in their world. They made less decisions, and instead equipped their community to make decisions within a guiding framework.

I am less interested in simply importing these ideas into the church, as if we only need to take our leadership advice from the business world. I think a robust theology of the laity and a better understanding of what we as the church have been called to do will lead to the same structural insights and developments as this book points out, within a more theological framework. But, in a world where, for some reason, business leadership ideas tend to hold more weight than theological visions of leadership, this may be a nice conversation starter. The idea that we don't need church CEOs and it won't destroy our ability to actually get something done is foreign, it seems to me, to many church leaders. Here now are some business leaders saying the same thing, and arguing it might be more effective in our emerging world. Perhaps this could serve as a catalyst for renewed thinking on how we can be a decentralized church, mobilizing the people in our churches for the calling that is theirs in Christ. Its definitely scarier because we as pastors have less control, but, to quote Bill Parcells from my favorite Coors Light commerical, "That's a good thing. Not a bad thing."


At 11:40 AM , Blogger Don said...

Never read the book, but heard it referenced numerous times. I agree - but it's so hard for a lot of people because decentralizing opens you up to failure.

At 12:23 PM , Blogger Erik said...

I'd say hierarchy and centralization open you up to failure too, it's just more deceptive and glaring. You can fail miserably even while you think you are succeeding incredibly. Think church growth movement.

At 12:23 PM , Blogger Erik said...

I should have said: more deceptive and less glaring

At 3:00 PM , Blogger Matthew said...

Classical business (and church) strategy is Assess the market->assess strategies to take advantage of market opportunities-> craft resources to fit strategy->
Implement and recraft strategy to capture the market. This starts by looking at the good or service to go after, and then worries about what we can offer.

Resource Based Strategy flips that on the head. It says the very first step in crafting strategy is "what talents and abilities do our people have that are extra special resources". It then says, "what can we do with these talents and resources - what kind of systems can we excell at?"

The "product" or market that is entered is then one of the last decisions made. Amazon first realized they had some smart internet techies, then realized there would be great use for online shopping, and at last identified books as a starting place.

If we truly used this order, then and maybe only then would spiritual gifts get the recognition they deserve in the role of living out a life for Christ.

At 6:14 PM , Blogger thehbs said...

I read this book for a class at PTS, and I really enjoyed their insights. As a guy who likes to keep his eye on what the culture is doing on a popular level, I thought a lot of what they wrote had merit.

In the Protestant church, we like to talk about the "priesthood of all believers," where we acknowledge that all of us are called to Christian ministry. This is where I think we can be "decentralized" in the Starfish sense. The problem is that many churches - and I include mine here - assume that pastors are religious professionals and that their activity is not necessarily essential to the church being in mission. (And I can understand this to some extent. It's not like I would show up at a law office and offer to start filing paperwork or do legal research. I can see why people don't get the connect that their activity is essential to the life of the church.)

As a pastor, one my prime objectives is to encourage all the people in my church to have a ministry. If our starfish organization shares a common objective - e.g., the Great Commission - then we have the potential to have a great impact in our community.

Our church has around 1000 members. If all of them were active in the sense I outlined above, we'd be a juggernaut!

P.S. Erik - sign up for fantasy baseball!

At 8:26 AM , Blogger Don said...

Erik - indeed. And that's the rub. You can fail while "succeeding" if you hold the power because you can call "success" whatever you want (the spin game). When you no longer hold the power, when you no longer have the ability to spin and direct what others do & perceive, you can no longer lie to yourself when you're failing!

At 11:15 AM , Blogger Tucker said...

Erik, I read your comment over on Jesus Creed. Man! I was thinking the same thing bro. Why is that we zillians of people get thrown into unorthodox on the emergent side but never the other way around. Great point.

At 9:13 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


Good Stuff. Our Church recently made a major shift with some of the thoughts in this book along with what I hope is the Holy Spirit leading the way. We moved from a "more traditional model" to a community focused one. What that all means in the context of doing church is still a little foggy to me. But I like the intention behind it. An empowerment of the church body and a more decentralized leadership structure are supposed to help make things, well more like Church...I guess. I'll let you know how it goes.

Interesting you brought up Al-Qaeda. I've read a lot of material that suggests the best way to fight them would actually be to subvert the whole culture. i.e. your example of cattle changing Native American culture. So what we should really be doing is pumping computers, MTV, The Simpsons and every other culturally corrosive thing we can into the region. Or maybe we should have just followed Charlie Wilson’s advice and actually built some schools in Afghanistan.


At 12:22 PM , Blogger Erik said...


One of the things I didn't mention, but the book does, is that the most affective means of "fighting" Al-Qaeda has been to basically arm certain people in the neighborhoods, and not ask questions. Call it the decentralized fighting the decentralized. Long-term it seems counter-productive; bring more weapons in to stop terrorists using weapons. So, there seem to be two different approaches: either centralize them somehow or fight them on their own terms. I'm not sure I like either approach.

At 2:15 PM , Blogger David Hallgren said...

Hi Erik,
I bought the book on Amazon after reading your post. It is very helpful to me as I am embedded in the corporate flagship out here in Seattle. The book really speaks to me because I see so many fear based, power retention decisions being made on a daily basis. I pray for some freedom and courage for out churches. Otherwise I will have to agree with McLaren, when he spoke in chapel - old institutionally based churches are irrelevant because they are unable to mobilize in the immediate.
Thanks for the good steer.


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