Of Starfish and Spiders

As this issue was being put together I was at an annual conference of business and NGO leaders called The Starfish Expo. This gathering takes its name from The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom. In their bestselling book on social networks, Brafman and Beckstrom contrast the spider, which will die if its head is cut off, with the starfish, which has the remarkable ability to reproduce itself through injury. If one of its legs is severed the starfish grows back a new leg, and the severed leg has the potential to create a new starfish.

The application to organizations and social networks is pretty straightforward. In today’s highly connected society, the organizations that thrive are not those that depend upon a central locus of control in order to function. Rather, it is the starfish-like organizations that flourish those composed of autonomous circles with decentralized leadership, with a high degree of peer-to-peer communication, the ability to disseminate information quickly and widely across the network, and the agility to bridge to other networks. These entities attract and retain members not through formal means but by rallying them to a common cause and creating a sense of belonging. These “organizations of the future” are already being created, fueled by social media, forming and reforming themselves as they grow and adapt depending upon the changing demands of their perceived mission and who is involved.

Given the fluid situation in China the “starfish and spider” metaphor seems particularly apt in regard to foreign organizations and those in country whom they seek to serve. In an era of transitioning leadership, those that have held on to a centralized structure are finding it difficult to “pass the baton” into local hands, particularly if maintaining the structure has required a high degree of foreign support and involvement. Local leadership may not see the value of the structure, much of which was conceived of outside China, nor may they be interested in supporting it when they can see more pressing needs in front of their eyes. Operating procedures or even treasured programs that once served noble purposes may have little relevance to the day-to-day work of those on the front lines.

A “starfish” entity, on the other hand, builds on existing networks, starts with agreed-upon values, focuses on the mission and a core ideology as the “glue” to hold the growing team together, and raises up champions to move things forward as they and the team see fit. The result is a multiplying network committed to an ongoing cause, not an organization or a brand.

Rather than continuing to run and hold tightly to the baton while scanning the horizon for the one who is waiting to take it, perhaps more organizations need to stop and consider how “starfish ready” they really are.

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Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton

Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio