Starfish and spiders in Tokyo

I was working at Apple when Steve Jobs did not work there. When Steve returned it became a vastly different organisation.



Last week I was speaking at a global entrepreneur organisation conference in Tokyo. I met some incredible people there.


Rod Beckstrom has founded, grown and successfully exited several businesses. But he is a curious sort of a guy. He wanted to know about the unstoppable power of leaderless organisations. So together with Ori Brafman he set about researching those organisations that are so very successful but they have seemingly no leader.


He cited many interesting examples during his presentation on the power of organisations without known leaders. Alcoholics Anonymous is an organisation with how many members? It is not clearly documented. More’s the point, it operates without leadership.


All you need is a few people who have a shared set of beliefs, are committed to an outcome and then they get together and make a difference. Rod notes that al-Quaeda operates in a similar way. And that is why the Americans are having so much trouble tracking the organisation down.


His most vivid illustration of organisations that don’t need a leader was made when he described the experiences of the Spanish in South America and North America.


In South America, with only 500 men, the Spaniards took on the Aztec population of 15 million – and within two years they had defeated them. The conquistadors found the king and the king’s family and killed them all. Because the Aztec society depended on the head for direction it quickly crumbled.


The Spaniards did this throughout the whole of South America and in just one century every civilisation had been concurred. He uses the analogy that if you take the head of a spider it cannot survive.


However this differed when the Spaniards came to America. Unlike the social structures of the Mayans and Aztecs, the American Indians, although they had villages, became nomadic.


The conquistadors could not find the leader. They thought it was Geronimo and put 25% their military strength into trying to track this person down. Even when he was killed the civilisation did not falter. This was a starfish type of structure – you could break off a group and it would then regenerate by itself – it does not require a head to survive.


The examples were vivid, but also the possibilities that were created were enormous. Rod posed the idea of peace on the planet, not based on a “war on terrorism” but pods of people simply standing committed to a purpose.


I saw real parallels for organisational structures. I was working at Apple when Steve Jobs did not work there. When Steve returned it became a vastly different organisation. This is a spider type organisation.


But then consider Limewire. This is a completely starfish organisation. You literally cannot find it because it resides not even on servers but on people’s local hard drives.


Consider the history of music. Before recordings the only way you could hear an artist was in person, then there were many recording studios that “owned” the music; this was consolidated into only a few. They owned the world’s music. But then Napster started.


The big recording studios think they won the legal battle because they got a payment settlement. But something changed forever. Music was no longer owned by a few. Napster had servers from which music was downloaded. It was an organisation that could be sued. It had a leader and infrastructure.


But the community now knows a new world of music so the likes of Limewire emerged. There are no servers, or infrastructure to speak of. It is a community of people sharing the songs on their individual hard drives. There is no one to sue. This is a starfish: there is no leader. Starfish are hard to destroy.


As I look at my own expansion plans there was so much that I gleaned on evolving an organization based on starfish rather than being a spider.


Rod is a very interesting entrepreneur and there is much more to learn from him.


Naomi Simson
The founder and CEO (Chief Experiences Officer) of RedBalloon Days, Naomi is passionate about pleasure! Backed by enthusiasm, energy and drive and recently named one of Australia’s best bosses (Australia’s Marketing Employer of Choice), the Entrepreneurs Organisation (Sydney Chapter) President 2007-08 and mother of two, Naomi also inspires others as a regular speaker, writes a blog and has recently completed her first book.


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