Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Starfish and the Spider

I just finished a book worth reading, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations. From the dust jacket (in part)...

If you cut off a spider's head, it dies; if you cut off a starfish's leg it grows a new one, and that leg can grow into an entirely new starfish. Traditional top-down organizations are like spiders, but now starfish organizations are changing the face of business and the world. [...] The Starfish and the Spider explores what happens when starfish take on spiders (such as the music industry vs. Napster, Kazaa, and the P2P services that followed). It reveals how established companies and institutions, from IBM to Intuit to the US government, are also learning how to incorporate starfish principles to achieve success.

I was inspired to read this book when I saw worries pop up in the press about the Tea Party movement lacking a leader (“Rifts Threaten Tea Party Movement”). Having no leader seemed OK to me. Glenn Beck (radio talk show host and Fox News host) has inspired many Tea Party members through The 912 Project but every time someone labels him a leader he back away from it. In fact he is not leading it. The movement is a leaderless organization. The Tea Party organization is a “starfish.”

Tea Party Starfish

One Tea Party group had an idea about a April 15th protest followed by a March on Washington. Other groups were inspired to join them. No grand plan. No requirement to go. Even Glenn Beck expressed reservations at first, but since he was not leading the group (rightfully so) the people soon were loading up the buses and heading for Washington!

This is an advantage of autonomy. No permission needed to act. No need to coordinate unless another group wishes to join in. Like the arm of a starfish, a local Tea Party drags the rest of the organization with it. There is no overall leader to make a decision or to guide it. There are coordinators but no commanders. This is somewhat inefficient, but what a starfish loses in efficiency it gains in long-term durability. You can lop off an arm but another will grow to take its place. Attacking a starfish this way makes it even harder to attack the next time.

Political Starfish and Spiders

Most organizations are spiders. They have a CEO, a president, a boss who makes the decisions and calls the shots. It is a hierarchy with one person at the top, a few people below him, many more below them and so forth. Information travels upward and commands travel downward.

Remember that comedy movie “Dave”? When Dave is impersonating the President of the United States he is taught “how the federal government works”. An organizational chart shows him at the top, above the Congress and Judiciary, but the Constitution requires power to be shared equally by Congress, the Judiciary and the President. They are co-equal branches of the federal government. (The States are a different entity and they are handled differently.)

The Founders designed the federal government to be a starfish organization but many people are uncomfortable with that model so the federal government has been morphing into a spider organization over the years. In essence the people have opted for a king/subjects model. This is common but a disappointment. As the Prophet Samuel pointed out: the people want a king and G-d is disappointed. See a discussion of why this disappoints G-d at “A Crash Course in Jewish History, Part 16 King Saul”. Note that G-d is not objecting to a king per se but rather He was disappointed in the reason why the people wanted a king: “[to] go out before us, and fight our battles.” I Samuel 8:20. The request betrayed a defect in the character of the people.

Why should anyone care?

If you are a Tea Party member, you have a target painted on your back. The establishment is looking to knock you off so anything that you can do (or not do) to defend yourself and even to better your offense should be considered. I'm a big proponent of “Don't fix something that is working.” The Tea party seems to be working well as a starfish.

Centrally-controlled organizations are vulnerable to certain kinds of attacks. "Spider" organizations can be destroyed or weakened considerably when the head is lopped off so when some Tea Party members clamor for a leader, they are wondering why our “spider” has no head. It doesn't need a head. While such an organization is difficult to move to action, one can be sure that when it does move it has the support of the membership.

Summing Up

The book is easy reading but not as clever nor as strong as Super Freakonomics and books of that ilk. It is a meta-treatment of the strengths of diffuse networks as compared to top-down organizations with their command-and-control structure. It is inspirational to think of where starfish organizations could go and it makes me wonder whether it isn't time to return the federal government to its original starfish formation. When decisions are spread amongst many equals, it becomes very difficult to push them all into a single direction unless it is a very good idea. Those few things that require a quick and decisive action are already vested in the Executive Branch. During a terror attack you don't want to turn over the decisions to committee. You need a President to make decisions and make them right now. But over the long run if an extended conflict seems inevitable, input from the grand committee should be required. That is what is called for in the Constitution... the quintessential starfish document.

Strong central government makes the argument that the old system is inefficient and that a “czar” can reduce these inefficiencies bringing the world into fair compliance. But it never works out that way. No one person nor central committee, no matter how intelligent, well-meaning and benevolent, can track all the elements of a situation to bring about fairness across millions of people. It is logistically impossible to do in any timely manner. That applies to the the politics of a government-guaranteed healthcare at the scale of the federal government these days, the politics of government-guaranteed fairness applied across society and even fairness guaranteed by government in capitalism. Government can't make good on such guarantees not because they don't want to but because they can't do it. When they make such guarantees, it lulls the citizenship into a sense of false security and this leaves us all vulnerable when the central government has its feet knocked out from under it and the individual is left to fend for himself, often utterly unprepared.

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