"Wealth will increasingly be defined by our ability to go offline whenever we want." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
January 30, 2007

The Starfish Cult

I’ve joined the growing cult of bloggers who have read (or are reading) The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations. It’s one of those fertile books that despite being easily readable over a couple of cups of coffee (200 odd pages, big type, no hard words), leaves you with a head […]

I’ve joined the growing cult of bloggers who have read (or are reading) The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations. It’s one of those fertile books that despite being easily readable over a couple of cups of coffee (200 odd pages, big type, no hard words), leaves you with a head full of ideas and constructive questions.

The basic thesis is that most conventional organisations and institutions are top-down, hierarchies. Like a Spider, if you cut off their head, they die. By contrast, we now have a rise of new “organisations,” (e.g., Al Quiada, music downloading, youtube, etc), that have circular bottom-up structures. Like a starfish, you cut off a leg and they not only don’t die, that leg could then spawn a whole new organisation. Starfish organisations have circular rather than top-down structures and they are driven by influence and inspiration, rather than fixed goals and power relations.

Right up front, it is worth noting that the book does not say – starfish = good, spider = bad. For example, if you get on a plane, you better hope that it is run like a spider and not a starfish!

But when we look at creating new structures, or re-imagining existing ones, it worth considering the Starfish idea. Perhaps, the most rich (and applicable to church organisation) section is the chapter dealing with Hybrid institutions. I plan on coming back to that chapter in a few weeks.

One issue I had with the book is that many of the examples are not really what I would call organisations. Instead, they are more diffuse – what we might call movements or phenomena (many of which are motivated by selfish, rather than altruistic motives). But even if we assume the best intentions, the starfish metaphor might not be radically new. I think we can see examples in the history of religious revival, or women’s suffrage, or the eradication of slavery that exemplify the starfish ideal.

In a lot of ways, I really like thinking about Christianity as a starfish kind of movement. This forces you to focus not on the machinery or structure or buildings, but on the people and the ideas.

In starfish organisations, it is the commitment of the people to each other, and to the ideals of the “starfish” that are the glue, not the institutional hierarchy. I find this satisfying first of all, because the appeal of Christianity should always be the compelling idea (or story), not compelling “programes;” and second, because the structures I have tried to create have always been circular and starfishy to some extent. So, reading this book has helped me to see why some of those ideas worked well and why they did not appeal to people more accustomed to the bottom-down spider approach.

The Starfish and The Spider is a telling and provocative read. I’m sure it will continue to be read and discussed widely as people rethink church leadership structures in the hope of making them flatter, more responsive, more compassionate and more missional.

[tags] Leadership, Starfish [/tags]

Responses
John Smulo 16 years ago

Fernando,

Thanks for the helpful review of this book. I’ve seen it mentioned a number of times, and like the other book you mentioned to me recently, will have to get a copy when I can.

jerry 16 years ago

Excellent post on a great book

JR Woodward 16 years ago

Fernando,

Thanks for the post. Someone else was telling me about this book a few weeks ago and I totally forgot about it. Now I ordered it. It looks like an interesting read. Thanks for the reminder.

Paul 16 years ago

Thanks Fernando – so is this cult of the starfish a starfish esque example 😉 ???

Good to read more about the book and to think about how strucutures and relationships work – i think from your words i am drawn to the hybrid – i think there is a need for a skeleton but also for spontaneity/evolution, planning and play etc… so looking forward to your further thoughts [and examples?]…

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

John – I do look forward to your comments, especially in the light of some of the things you have said in the past about Baptist leadership structures and your current thinking about leadership and the fivefold ministry thing.

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Thanks Jerry!

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

JR – glad to chime in with the reminder. I’m also very keen to see what you make of it.

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Paul – yes it is!

In terms of church I do think we need a hyrbid for sure. But one BIG question I have is about the way we organise denominations and associations…

brodie 16 years ago

Fernando – would you see some sort of convergence between what this book suggests / observes and a leadership / structure that should or could flow from social understandings of Trinity?

Joshua Case 16 years ago

welcome to the darkside;)

jc

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Joshua – thanks (I think…).

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Brodie – we could always bolt it on, I suppose. Seriously though, I’ll have to think about that a little more. It didn’t really jump out at me, but then again I wasn’t really reading it with that sort of question in mind.

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