Thursday, December 13, 2007


In their book The Starfish and the Spider, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom contrast the body styles of two organisms that seem to have a lot in common, but don't:

"With a spider, what you see is pretty much what you get. A body's a body, a head's a head, and a leg's a leg. But starfish are very different. the starfish doesn't have a head. Its central body isn't even in charge. In fact, the major organs are replicated throughout each and every arm. If you cut the starfish in half, you'll be in for a surprise: the animal won't die, and pretty soon you'll have two starfish to deal with.

"Starfish have an incredible quality to them: If you cut an arm off, most of these animals grow a new arm. And with some varieties, such as the Linckia, or long-armed starfish, the animal can replicate itself from just a single piece of an arm. You can cut the Linckia into a bunch of pieces, and each one will regenerate into a whole new starfish. They can achieve this magical regeneration because in reality, a starfish is a neural network - basically a network of cells. Instead of having a head, like a spider, the starfish functions as a decentralized network. Get this: for the starfish to move, one of the arms must convince the other arms that it's a good idea to do so. The arm starts moving, and then - in a process that no one fully understands - the other arms cooperate and move as well. The brain doesn't "yea" or "nay." The starfish doesn't have a brain. There is no central command. Biologists are still scratching their heads over how this creature operates, but....the starfish operates a lot like the Nant'ans. If spiders are the Aztecs of the world, starfish are surely the apaches."

As a historical illustration of starfish v. spider, Brafman and Beckman make distinctions between the centralized organization of the Spanish under Cortes, and the decentralized organization of the Apaches under Geronimo:

"A centralized organization is easy to understand. Think of any major company or governmental agency. You have a clear leader who's in charge, and there's a specific place where decisions are made (the boardroom, the corporate headquarters, city hall)....This organization type [is] coercive because the leaders call the shots: when the CEO fires you, you're out. When Cortes ordered his army to march, they marched. The Spanish, Aztecs and Incas were all centralized and coercive. Although it sounds like something out of a Russian gulag, a coercive system is not necessarily bad. Whether you're a Spanish general, an Aztec leader, or a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, you use command-and-control to keep order in your organization, to make it efficient, and to function from day to day. Rules need to be set and enforced, or the system collapses. For instance, when you get on an airplane, you had better hope it's a coercive system. You certainly don't want Johnson from seat 28J to decide that right about now is a good time to land. No, Johnson needs to sit quietly and enjoy the movie while the captain - and only the captain - has the authority to make decisions to ensure that the plane flies properly.

"Decentralized systems, on the other hand, are a little trickier to understand. In a decentralized organization, there's no clear leader, no hierarchy, and no headquarters. If and when a leader does emerge, that person has little power over others. The best that person can do to influence people is to lead by example....This [is] an open system, because everyone is entitled to make his or her own decisions. This doesn't mean that a decentralized system is the same as anarchy. There are rules and norms, but they aren't enforced by any one person. Rather, the power is distributed among all the people and across geographical regions. Basically, there's no Tenochtitlan, and no Montezuma.

"But without a Montezuma, how do you lead? Instead of a chief, the Apaches had a Nant'an - a spiritual and cultural leader. The Nant'an lead by example and held no coercive power. Tribe members followed the Nant'an because they wanted to, not because they had to. One of the most famous Nant'ans in history was Geronimo, who defended his people against the American forces for decades. Geronimo never commanded an army. Rather, he himself started fighting, and everyone around him joined in. The idea was, 'If Geronimo is taking arms, maybe it's a good idea. Geronimo has been right in the past, so it makes sense to fight alongside him.' You wanted to follow Geronimo? You followed Geronimo. You didn't want to follow him? Then you didn't. The power lay with each individual - you were free to do what you wanted. The phrase "you should" doesn't even exist in the Apache language. Coercion is a foreign concept.

"The Nant'ans were crucial to the well-being of this open system, but decentralization affects more than just leadership. Because there was no capital and no central command post, Apache decisions were made all over the place. A raid on a Spanish settlement, or example, could be conceived in one place, organized in another, and carried out in yet another. You never knew where the Apaches would be coming from. In one sense, there was no place where important decisions were made, and in another sense, decisions were made by everybody everywhere.

"On first impression, it may sound like the Apaches were loosey-goosey and disorganized. In reality, however, they were an advanced and sophisticated socieity - it's just a decentralized organization is a completely different creature....The traits of a decentralized society - flexibility, shared power, ambiguity - made the Apaches immune to attacks that would have destroyed a centralized society."

At CTK we are attempting to be more like a starfish, than a spider, and more like the Apaches than the Spanish. This requires a leadership style that is more like Geronimo than Cortes.

No comments: