Starfish and the Spider

We had a stormy day Tuesday, so I took it as an opportunity to read a new leadership book (new to me, anyway), The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman & Rod A. Beckstrom. I found it to be a useful challenge to United Methodist Churches, given our penchant for highly structured command and control organizations – “spiders” in the jargon of Brafman and Beckstrom.

The authors present 8 “Principles of Decentralization” – though I found another in their book that seems particularly relevant. I’ll give their principles below with a brief comment of my own.

“When attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more open and decentralized.” This is closely matched with their last principle: “When attacked, centralized organizations tend to become more centralized.” From what I’ve seen, we UMs have a strong tendency to think in terms of bureaucratic solutions. A few years ago some were arguing that we needed a UM “Pope” to straighten things out. While I’ve often thought things needed correction, I think adding a Pope to the mix would be a horrible mistake.

“It’s easy to mistake starfish for spiders.” Superficially, yes. But if you pay any attention to them, or interact with them much, the differences become clear.

“An open system doesn’t have central intelligence; the intelligence is spread throughout the system.” Maybe it’d be better to say something like, “An open system doesn’t have peripheral stupidity.” Trust and shared vision and responsibility are distributed throughout an open system, leading to localized intelligences. There is no central brain that know everything that needs to be known. There is no individual participant who lacks the capacity to make wise decisions to accomplish the mission of the organization in is or her own particular setting.

“Open systems can easily mutate.” Since intelligence is distributed through the system, change happens as needed.

“The decentralized organization sneaks up on you.” The authors make a big deal of how you can cut a starfish in half you get two live starfish instead of one dead one. You think you’re doing away with them when instead you’re helping them. Try that with a spider. Rapid growth and multiplication is therefore possible. Perhaps a factor is that because intelligence is distributed, challenges become occasions not so much for worry, but creativity.

“As industries become decentralized, overall profits decrease.” This is why big business tends to prefer centralization: greater predictability and profitability. Big centralized brains are also expensive to maintain, and costly in terms of resources.

“Put people into an open system and they’ll automatically want to contribute.” Hugely relevant to the church. What would happen if our members began to see themselves not merely as members, but as organs essential to the life and flourishing of the whole body?

“Open systems can’t rely on a police force. On the one hand, there’s freedom to do what you want, but on the other hand you have added responsibility.” The authors don’t identify this as a basic principle, but I do. Churches have too long made the mistake of treating people as if their only responsibility is to give money and do what they’re told. Instead, Jesus invites us all to take up our roles in his ongoing story. He doesn’t make us do the right things, but when we do what is right, things happen that wouldn’t happen apart from our obedience. The life to which he calls us is infinitely more important than mere hoop jumping.

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3 Responses to Starfish and the Spider

  1. Gary says:

    Interesting points. Do they propose a method that falls between the two? One thing I have issues with is when I go to a UM church that is so different from another that it seems odd that they would even share a name. Perhaps that goes into the planning of your starfish?

  2. Kurt says:

    I’ve been decentralizing the leadership of the church as well as deemphasizing a pastor centric/driven church model at my charge. It’s been very effective in empowering the creativity and boldness of individual laity in mission and service, as well as made minor positive changes in hospitality. By including more laity in various points of worship–such as scripture readers, announcers, and prayer leaders–the congregation takes more ownership in the worship service and the church as a whole (since implementing these changes, attendance has improved two-fold over last year).

    I thing as far as generosity, as one of your points implied, there should still be some centralized drive behind it; however, when backed by a decentralized congregation, a program like New Consecration Sunday is more easily accepted.

    I can see how the decentralization process would end up looking a lot like a Wesleyan class model; but even in the class model, there was a hierarchy.

  3. Thanks for posting this, Richard. This really resonates with me, and with the frustrations I have with ministry and with the church (I mean “the Church in general, not just the UMC in particular). I don’t like being a part of a spider organization. I much prefer starfish. I see my role as empowering others.

    But, as a result of this I don’t see the kind of numerical “success” that I would also like to see. Nowadays I just don’t know what ministry is all about. I thought I did once, but now I just don’t know.

    But, thanks for giving me a new (to me) image to use in thinking about this.

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