Recently, after many years, I read The Starfish and The Spider again and it struck me how it’s even more relevant today than it was when it was first released in 2006.
It’s a ‘must-read’ – compelling, enlightening, impactful. It absolutely captures the imagination with its metaphors for explaining the two types of leadership; those who want and seek control centrally (consider the spider) and others who believe power and intelligence needs to be decentralised or networked (consider the starfish).
As the book says ….
One thing that business, institutions, governments and key individuals will have to realize is a spider and starfish may look alike, but starfish have a miraculous quality to them. Cut off the leg of a spider, and you have a seven-legged creature on your hands; cut off its head and you have a dead spider. But cut off the arm of a starfish and it will grow a new one. Not only that, but the severed arm can grow an entirely new body. Starfish can achieve this feat because, unlike spiders, they are decentralized; every major organ is replicated across each arm.
At The Connectives we see the power of the starfish. In our practice, we work as catalysts, where together with clients and others, we enable change to happen and help ensure all parts of a system, business, organisation or community understand and embrace their sense of purpose. In a world where speed of response and an ability to adapt to an often ambiguous and uncertain environment is critical, starfish are more likely to thrive.
A single brain, centrally located is risky. It takes too long for data to be transmitted to the brain and body, and for a single processor to decide what needs to happen next.
Spiders are also less likely to seek or enjoy what we believe is the life blood of change – a desire to embrace ‘positive disruption’. At the Connectives we exist to create positive disruption, the idea that for change to occur, we must be uncomfortable with the status quo. We know that where markets are unpredictable or operating environments require new thinking, tapping into untapped potential unleashes creative energy and innovation, enabling us to just think and do something differently.
Whether we have done this with clients in the private sector, who’ve commissioned us to develop and deliver interventions to increase accountability and commerciality, or a charity that said it had problems with its offices and the lack of space for filing, our starting point is always to listen and then ask, ‘Why do you see this as the problem and how do you know your chosen solution will deliver the benefits you seek?’
With the bank that had collapsed and was seeking the leadership solution, we explored the imperative to develop ‘leadership intelligence’, reconnecting the need for leaders to understand what drives their behaviour and that of others.
In the case of Manchester’s 42nd Street, a mental health youth charity, we explored the possibilities of developing and owning land and an asset that harnessed the creativity of its young people to answer the question, ‘What if the built form better enabled you to do want to do and enhanced your mental health and well being?’
Both delivered extraordinary results. Bankers who embraced their humanity and the consequences of choices; young people who can say, ‘I built that’ and now have a community knocking on the door to ask what happens in this iconic building. The latter followed by an open conversation about mental health, a subject all of us need to be talking about more in open and honest ways.
For us, both these examples and the wider work we do reminds us why it’s always worth asking, ‘Ever wondered what it would be like if we just did things a little differently?’
It also reminds us why organisms, where every part understands why it exists and therefore how to keep reinventing itself, can better respond to opportunity and challenge. They are more resilient than those which think that one part or one person knows the answer. In a world where we need to ask better questions and where everyone needs to hold the intelligence, we need distributive leadership and decentralised power that better enables peer relationships and partnerships to deliver more.