Starfish and spiders as problem-solvers

A lot of business books claim to provide vital knowledge. Every so often one of these books actually delivers.

Last fall I read a fascinating book titled “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations” by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom. The term “starfish” refers to leaderless organizations like Wikipedia, while “spider” refers to a company that has a traditional top-down leadership model.

I was fascinated by the concept of leaderless organizations, never having thought of Craigslist or Napster in that fashion. Although those websites had founders who administered them, their success was based on users having the right to act as co-administrators. This makes sense in hindsight – think of the popularity of television shows like “American Idol” where audience members vote to determine the contest’s winner. Realty show voting and Internet sites give everyone a voice in this age of social networking.

I’ve been revisiting “The Starfish” lately to gain new insights into the starfish concept. One chapter is devoted to hybrid organizations, or those that have aspects of both starfish (leaderless) and spiders (top-down management). The chapter mentions the work of David Cooperrider, a professor at Case Western Business School who developed the concept of “appreciative inquiry.”

Appreciative inquiry is used to solve problems in organizations. People from all levels of a company participate in pairs to interview one another. As the book states, a janitor may ask the CEO questions, which are provided by Cooperrider to encourage people to open up. Cooperrider’s intention is to break down the hierarchy. After the interviews conclude, participants get together to brainstorm, and every person’s idea is treated with respect. Since everyone feels they had a voice, they are more likely to buy into any plans that result from the session.

The “Starfish” authors make their case for the appreciative inquiry technique despite its sounding like a “touchy-feely” method. They note that the technique led to resolving a dispute between truckers and management at one of the world’s largest truck companies. The process also was credited with the creation of a strategic plan at the U.S. Navy.

You don’t have to view conflicts as an unavoidable part of doing business; disagreement can be healthy when it is managed effectively and channeled into creative problem-solving where everyone’s voice is heard in a respectful way. It’s only when respect is thrown out and disagreement is unmanaged that it becomes destructive conflict.


Listen to your shoes and take a step in the right direction

Choosing the right footwear may seem like a minor thing. But it can make a big difference in how you perform at work.

You may ask how footwear relates to marketing or business management.

It’s simple. If your feet hurt, you’re going to be distracted, irritable and plenty of other unpleasant adjectives.

I have a part-time job that requires me to stand — and to do much walking. I thought I had two nice pairs of dressy work shoes. But after a month on the job, my feet “told” me I was delusional. Your body often “knows” things even when your conscious mind doesn’t. And my feet “knew” I had bad shoes.

After I started “listening” to my feet, I researched appropriate shoes and the places to buy them at a reasonable price. I bought a pair of Bostonian and a pair of Rockport shoes. I wore the Bostonians yesterday, and I could immediately tell the difference. Whereas I had been coming home from work with extremely sore feet, cramped legs and worse, yesterday my feet were slightly sore but began to feel better once I sat down. Yesterday’s work shift was much more pleasant, and I feel I was more productive. I was able to concentrate on the job, and not my sore feet.

This morning I wore my old tennis shoes, and my feet “told” me they weren’t as good as the Bostonians. I quickly changed footwear, and right now I’m wearing the Rockports. I’m feeling more creative than I have in a while (hence, I’ve broken my writer’s block and am writing this blog). Think of the implications for management and marketing. It’s amazing how changing a pair of shoes can change one’s work productivity.


Was that not in your job description before? It is now.

I just viewed a job posting for an editor who not only will edit and handle the traditional production tasks, but is expected to serve as a backup for the receptionist when he or she leaves on lunch break.

If I had that job, that would be fine by me. I am currently doing “extras” that I once would have disdained. But that’s OK – I am happy to have a job and I am grateful to my company for providing me a job with benefits. The only reason I will eventually leave is for personal reasons – I’m getting married to someone who lives a bit of a long distance away. Otherwise, I would expect to stay with my company long-term.

With today’s economy, you can’t afford to say “that’s not in my job description, that’s beneath me.” Companies continue to feel the squeeze and are keeping staffing levels tight. They expect – and deserve – their workers to rally around the corporate flag and do everything within reason to help them pull through. It’s not only your job that could be on the line – it could be the company’s survival.

Teamwork takes trust

What can you do if your co-workers aren’t working together as a team? You don’t have to throw in the towel.

According to Patrick Lencioni, author of “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team,” the absence of trust is the root of a lack of teamwork. You know you have trust when people engage in unfiltered conflict when discussing ideas. They admit weaknesses and ask for help. Dysfunctional team members conceal their weaknesses from one another and hesitate to ask for help.

It’s not a weakness to admit you don’t know everything and to ask for help. It takes courage to do so, and you display strength by admitting this. Any competent supervisor will appreciate your honesty and dedication to getting the job done correctly. If your supervisor isn’t competent, he or she may be afraid to show weakness. Showing your strength in this instance could be your chance to shine.

One of my former business professors, Dr. Jeff Myers, says that thought precedes communication. Try to think of one area you can improve upon and find a non-threatening way to mention this to a co-worker you think you can work well with. Use this as an opportunity to build a good working relationship with this person. If he or she shares a weakness with you, great. You’ve made a start at building a cohesive team that can communicate effectively. If this co-worker doesn’t reciprocate by opening up to you, then he or she isn’t going to be a reliable teammate anytime soon.

A day of teaching classes in Olomouc, Czech Republic

Our group helped teach two university classes today at Univerzita Palackého in Olomouc, Czech Republic. Dr. Adina Scruggs has been teaching at the university all week and has introduced the students to the SWOT Analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats). SWOT is used to analyze business strengths and weaknesses.

My group, including Josh Rule, Benton Jones and Julian Bennett, led groups of four to five students in analyzing businesses using SWOT. Czech universities normally only lecture to students and do not engage them in interactive learning, so Adina has been working to overcome that cultural barrier, which the students seemed to appreciate. They loved learning about American culture, from discussing music to how our university and colleges operate. Then, some of the students led us on a tour of their town, which dates to the 10th century.

Now, we’re back in Brno preparing to leave to Prague in a few hours–another early morning and lots of commuting.

Be an effective leader or follower

Does your personality get in the way of leading, or following your leaders? Whether you’re an extrovert or introvert, a leader or a follower, you can rise above your natural inclination to relate to others more effectively.

Extroverts: Make yourself hold back on occasion and listen to others. Don’t dominate the conversation. Try to build a collaborative effort. Ask others to give their opinions, and try to follow through on their advice – otherwise, they may perceive you’re only giving lip service to collaboration.

Introverts: Get away from your desk and interact with others. Make an effort to talk to people who work outside of your department. Remember to smile and tell people hello when you walk by. Develop talking points for both work-related issues (the effectiveness of new equipment) and personal topics (from the weather to a person’s children). Volunteer to work on special projects.

The key is to recognize your personality style and determine that you will overcome it. Once you do that, you can be a more effective leader or follower.

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