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The Sparfish

On a tip from HCL Technologies CEO Vineet Nayar, I purchased and started reading “The Starfish And The Spider“. In the book, authors Brafman and Beckstrom define seven principles of decentralized orgs of people:

  1. When attacked, a decentralized org tends to become even more open and decentralized.
  2. It’s easy to mistake decentralized orgs (starfish) for centralized orgs (spiders).
  3. A decentralized org doesn’t have central intelligence; the intelligence is spread throughout the system.
  4. A decentralized org can easily mutate.
  5. A decentralized org sneaks up on you.
  6. As industries become decentralized, overall profits decrease.
  7. Put people into a decentralized org and they’ll automatically want to contribute.

Because of numbers 3 and 6, owners and SCOLs of centralized command and control hierarchies will never embrace the “starfish” concept. The self-centered need for SCOLs to project the image that “I’m great and you’re not” (number 3) and the constant external pressure to generate increasing profits (number 6) guarantee the status quo for all but the most enlightened leaders. However, because number 7 is the holy grail for the CGHs that sit on the throne, they try their best to feign being a starfish while remaining a spider. This systemic and self-defeating behavior is recursively nested all the way down the CCH; from the upper echelon of VPs and directors down through the fatty middle management layers and ultimately down to the BMs that rule at the interface with the DICforce.

Like Mr. Nayer, I don’t buy into the Brafman/Beckstrom set of principles 100%. Their starfish/spider metaphor works well up to a point. For example, a spider is much more mobile than a starfish; which enables it to be more proactive in acquiring the resources it needs to survive. Specifically, I believe that a hybrid “sparfish” org can increase profits while simultaneously providing an environment in which all members automatically want to contribute. By distributing resources more equitably via democracy and implementing a true meritocracy, the best of both species can be merged. The trick is figuring out how to freakin’ do it, no?

  1. fishder spidish
    November 16, 2010 at 8:19 am

    I think I saw one of those crawling on the ceiling this morning.

    The implied reality of #6 would direct you to think that Spider industries are more profitable? Is this because they are more monopolistic and can control what they charge their customers to increase profitability? I have a hard time swallowing that one. Why are decentralized industries less profitable?

    • November 16, 2010 at 4:34 pm

      You know, when I read that I did a double take too. In the examples that the authors use, it definitely turned out that way. For example, they use the Napster/Kazaa/E-mule decentralized assaults on the Music industry to show that the music industry’s profit declined and the decentralized competitors didn’t make *any* money. As soon as Napster/Kazaa tried to centralize to collect money – the music industry focused on the new spider’s “head” and sued them.

      Having said that, I don’t think number 6 is applicable in all contexts. I think Vineet Nayar may agree too because his company is increasingly profitable while decentralizing – by pushing intelligence and choice out to the edges of his company. HCL Technologies still is hierarchical, but it doesn’t operate as a classical textbook command & control hierarchy.

  1. November 19, 2010 at 8:40 pm

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