Archives For Starfish Principle

Victor Hugo. Credit: Unknown, Public Domain

Victor Hugo. Credit: Unknown, Public Domain

There’s nothing stronger than an idea whose time has come.

– Victor Hugo

In their 2006 book, The Starfish and the Spider, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom chronicle the power of organizations with no central control, no structured leadership, oftentimes no budget, and that tend to be volunteer driven. The authors call them “starfish” because they thrive despite (or perhaps because of) having no central nervous system. You cut off a leg, and they regenerate another.

Starfish organizations include Alcoholics Anonymous, Wikipedia, the abolitionist movement in England 150 years ago, and the Apache resistance to Spanish conquest in the 17th and 18th century Southwest US. As I considered last week, the idea can spread far and wide to include less known organizations operating in our communities, such as the F3 workout group that meets early each morning in Raleigh.

We’re so biased towards models of command and control, that it’s counter-intuitive to think that a group without a leader can somehow be more powerful and more successful than one with a manager at its helm. So what’s the secret to starfish success? The authors outline several success factors, and the one that jumps out the most is ideology. Here they highlight how it works with Alcoholics Anonymous:

At AA, the ideology is that people can help each other out of addiction. The twelve steps reflect the implications of this ideology. People who don’t buy into the twelve steps aren’t likely to stay in AA. But those who do follow the twelve steps do so rigorously…we can expect AA and its offshoots to be around as long as there’s addiction.

The idea is straightforward, and it serves a real need (addiction). The structure of the groups is simple and easy to replicate. If someone wants to start a new group, it’s like a fractal pattern repeating itself as its reach expands further and further. The power lies in the simplicity that makes it repeatable. If the ideology becomes too complex or too convoluted, the expansion collapses on itself.

As Victor Hugo put it above, there’s nothing stronger than an idea whose time has come. People will rally around an idea that speaks to them; that resonates. And in organizations that don’t provide economic compensation or status or other forms of incentive, the idea must have power, be simple, and be cogent.