Several days a week, before dawn, middle-aged men congregate in small groups around Raleigh. They meet at parks, school playgrounds, and open fields and spend the better part of an hour running through fitness drills. When done exercising, they gather in a huddle for chatter and reflection before breaking and heading their separate ways.
I first heard about these groups a year ago. Over the span of a few weeks, I was approached by no less than six men suggesting I might enjoy the experience. None were pushy. Each seemed genuine and friendly. I sensed no alternative motive, but I demurred. I’m slow to accept new commitments.
If asked last year to wager on whether these groups would still exist today, I would have bet against them. I would have said they’d peter out. People are just too busy and have so many easier options for working out. At best, maybe they’d continue with a small core of devotees. Certainly nothing more.
Well, prognostication has never been my strong suit.
It’s breaking out like a virus. From simple beginnings not many years ago, it has somewhere around 200 participants today. It’s grown from Raleigh to neighboring communities, and there are hints of it expanding even further.
Yet it has no leadership structure. No money changes hands. And there are few hard and fast rules about when and where they meet or how they conduct the workouts. It’s all happening in an organic, self-organizing way.
These are the sort of questions I’m pointing at Will (known in the groups as “Maize”) at the neighborhood pool over Memorial Day weekend. Since there are no leaders, I can best describe him as a champion of these groups. While we both keep an eye on our children splashing at the edge of the deep end, I ask him why this is taking off. What’s the secret?
“It’s the starfish principle, man,” he answers. “You want to understand, you gotta read The Starfish and the Spider.”
So I ordered the book and devoured it early this week.
But let’s step back for a moment. Why do I care?
Last September I started a little experiment. What kind of impact could I have doling out a handful of tiny investments in businesses and organizations I saw as adding some benefit to Raleigh? I call it the Enough Project, and it’s been a fascinating ride. The hypothesis is that there are budding ideas out there that could turn into something impactful if given access to capital. Even tiny amounts of capital. And that this need is going unmet by bank lending, angel/VC investing, and grant-making organizations.
There’s a funding breach that needs to be filled, and I wonder if it can be done in a decentralized, hyper-local, and sustainable way.
With the Enough Project, I’ve moved my family emergency savings fund over to Self-Help Credit Union in Durham and explored the ways they use my deposits to make loans to businesses that provide community benefit but that banks ignore (I wrote about that here). I’ve made a peer-to-peer loan through Slow Money NC that went to a company called CompostNow to help it expand operations by purchasing its second distribution-collection van. The entrepreneur behind that business is extremely ambitious for his company, but he just hasn’t been able to get access to growth capital at fair terms. I’ve made loans through Kiva.org and contributed to Raleigh projects on Kickstarter.
My quixotic vision for the Enough Project is that it becomes a source of funding for more creative projects that benefit our community and perhaps it even creates a spark that fuels even more creativity and more funding for projects in a sort of virtuous chain reaction.
If that’s to be, I need to test whether this experiment can scale from just me to something at least little bit larger than one person. That would be the next logical step, and so I’m eager to learn about models that might demonstrate a way forward. Thus my interest in the development of this fitness group, and thus my interest in the book.
The Starfish and the Spider (subtitled, “the unstoppable power of leaderless organizations”) ponders different organizations that have thrived despite having no discernible management structure; no center of control. More precisely, the argument is that these groups have thrived because they have no central structure. The power exists on the fringes among the individuals who choose to participate and who volunteer their time and energy to the cause. Some examples includes Alcoholics Anonymous, Wikipedia, the abolitionist movement in England 150 years ago, and even the Apache resistance to Spanish conquest in 17th and 18th century Southwest US.
Like a starfish, each group was resisted threats by being distributed and decentralized. If you cut off a leg, the starfish doesn’t die. It generates a new one. If the Spanish sacked an Apache village, the survivors simply spread out and regrouped or joined other Apache tribes. There was nothing central to destroy, so it was impossible to snuff out the entire thing.
I’m interested in the regenerating qualities of these groups as I consider what the next phase of this Enough Project might be, but I’m even more interested in the simple philosophies that allows these movements to take root and grow. Something has to resonate on a deep and abiding level with people to get them to volunteer their precious time for something that will never pay them a penny. I think it has to scratch some itch, soothe some spiritual need, or satisfy some aspiration.
For the fitness group, why else would you roll out of bed before the sun comes up?
In the Starfish book, the authors consider Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), a group catalyzed by Bill Wilson in 1935.
At Alcoholics Anonymous, no one’s in charge. And yet, at the same time, everyone’s in charge. It’s Nevin’s [a sociologist who studied Apaches] open system in action. The organization functions just like a starfish. You automatically become part of the leadership – an arm of the starfish, if you will – the moment you join. Thus, AA is constantly changing form as new members come in and others leave. The one thing that does remain constant is the recovery principle – the famous twelve steps. Because there is no one in charge, everyone is responsible for keeping themselves – and everyone else – on track. Even seniority doesn’t matter that much; you’re always an alcoholic. You have a sponsor…but the sponsor doesn’t lead by coercion; that person leads by example…There’s no application form, and nobody owns AA.
The brilliance in AA seems to be its simple structure and meaningful mission. Each small group contains within it the DNA that allows it to replicate quickly and easily with no need for leadership and oversight. Because of that, it has chapters running in every community center and church basement around the world, and it’s done untold good for the people that need it.
Some similar simplicity seems to be at work with Will’s fitness group. It embraces the Starfish principle and taps into some deep, unmet need of its participants.
And though I’m not yet committing to rolling out of bed at five in the morning, my curiosity is piqued.