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.

Starfish-style challenges


What do you do when you’ve always charged for delivering a service or product and some Web site comes along and offers something much like it for free?

That’s been the question plaguing the music recording, news and software companies for some time.

I recently came across a book published in 2006 that takes a fascinating look at this phenomenon: “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations,” by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom. The authors take a look at movements/organizations that defy the traditional leadership model of “Who’s in charge?” Sometimes, no one is in charge. The Aztecs had Montezuma and a capital city, and were easily wiped out by the Spanish who killed the leader. The Apache had no centralized leader and no capital, and thus were better equipped to fight off attacks by armies from developed nations who looked for traditional targets to strike. But the book’s authors say that also describes the recording music industry’s attempts to fight off Napster: They effectively killed that one Web site, but their efforts antagonized people and spawned lots of imitators.

The authors write that Craigslist provided an unexpected challenge to the newspaper industry. Why pay for a newspaper classified when you can advertise a product for free all over the world? Likewise, why subscribe to a newspaper when you can read it for free online?

Newspapers learned to combine ad sales for print and online editions, as well as partnering with sites like CareerBuilder. After many newspapers dropped their attempts to subscriptions for stories, some organizations are taking a second look. My newspaper, The Daily Post-Athenian, already has returned to the online subscription model.

Platforms like the Kindle and the iPad hold out some hope of helping newspapers get digital media users accustomed to paying for content (the Wall Street Journal costs only $14.99 a month on the Kindle, and slightly more on the iPad).

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