It may sound like the title of one of Aesop’s fables….but it really is the title of a very intriguing book I just finished reading.

It is a book about the power of decentralised organizations: the parallel to the animal kingdom is intriguing! If you cut off a spider’s head, it dies; if you cut off a starfish’s leg it grows a new one, and that leg can grow into an entirely new starfish. Traditional top-down organizations are like spiders, but now starfish organizations are changing the face of business and the world. Rings a bell???

Starfish organizations are taking society and the business world by storm, and are changing the rules of strategy and competition. Like starfish in the sea, starfish organizations are organized on very different principles than we are used to seeing in traditional organizations. Spider organizations are centralized and have clear organs and structure. You know who is in charge. You see them coming.

Starfish organizations, on the other hand, are based on completely different principles. They tend to organize around a shared ideology or a simple platform for communication. They arise rapidly around the simplest ideas or platforms. Ideas or platforms that can be easily duplicated.

In today’s world starfish are starting to gain the upper hand.

How can Toyota leverage starfish principles to crush their spider-like rivals, GM and Ford? How did tiny Napster cripple the global music industry? Why is free, community based Wikipedia crushing Encyclopedia Britannica overnight? In today’s world to answer this it is essential to understand the potential strength of a starfish organization.

The parallel to the way the CGIAR is organized came to mind many many times as I was reading the book.  To our structure, to the innovation we foster, to the creativity we encourage…the CGIAR is our starfish! A timely reading as the CGIAR is going through its Change Management process. How can we ensure we preserve our starfish-like structure to support our science but create small, nimble agile spider-like departments where centralization means efficiency? Should we think of a hybrid model?

The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, made me look at the organization we work for in a very appreciative light.

Happy reading!