In the book The Starfish and the Spider, Brafman and Beckstrom compare the nature of a spider and a starfish when it comes to multiplying. If you cut off the leg of a spider it may survive, but if you cut its head off it will die. Yet in a starfish there is no head. The major organs are replicated in each arm. So if you cut a starfish in half it will replicate itself. With the Linckia, or long armed starfish, you can cut it into pieces and each piece will grow into a new starfish. For a starfish to move, one of the arms must go through a process of communicating with and convincing the other arms that they should also move. (p.35) What an amazing creature! This is the nature of how de-centralized movements function.
The nature of most movements is that they start out being decentralized, and yet over time there is a natural gravitational pull to become more centralized. This happens as the movement develops structures to serve the organic life of the movement. The struggle revolves around the ebb and flow of centralization and decentralization. So the seminal question in most organizations, businesses, church denominations is “How do we remain in a movement state?” A subset of questions is: “How do leaders keep from staying in the center, so that if they die or resign the movement shrinks or dies? How do we steward power and authority? Is it possible for decentralized movements to exist in harmony within more centralized movements?” The core of the questions revolves around the issues of leadership and structure.
“Every river has banks to guide the river to its end goal; every tree has a trunk to support the sap getting to the extremities of the branches; and every body has a skeleton to contain the spirit.”
Sometimes organic movements overreact, out of the fear of becoming a hierarchical organization that is a bottleneck to change and growth, by becoming very suspicious, or even anti or allergic to any type of leadership, or anything that smacks of structure, ritual, or deliberate planning. This is one of the central themes or plots of history. The upstart spontaneous movements throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. During the Luther led reformation, people reacted to the Catholic tradition of icons and relics by tearing down and destroying many of the icons in their churches. All icons and relics were seen as potential for idolatry and tools to manipulate people. Thus we get the word iconoclastic. On the other hand, the older more institutionalized organizations often see the new movements as a threat and try to squelch or even stop them. This has resulted in numerous rifts, schisms, and divisive splits.
These same proclivities to swing from one extreme to the other are evident today. For example, look at what is happening in the Alberta political scene with the Progressive Conservative reaction to the Wildrose Party, as they threaten to unseat the PC’s from power in the upcoming election. Another example is the strong negative reactions and polar swings of some of the decentralized emergent or postmodern forms of church, which reject any type of leadership or organization in meetings.
An alternative way which Brafman and Beckstrom raise in their book is the accordion principle. In the study of systems, what is being discovered is that a healthy organization will learn how to navigate the natural rhythms of moving like an accordion from decentralization to centralization and then back again to decentralization. If leaders learn how to deliberately take steps to move from one spectrum to the other in the life cycles of an organization, it is possible to remain in a movement state. Thus the question is not whether there is a need for leadership and structure, but more so how do we lead, and how do we adapt structures to serve life?
Brafman and Beckstrom posit the 5 legs of a movement that are key to remaining in a movement state, moving back and forth from decentralization to centralization.
1. Circles: These are pockets of organic life organized around a common vision and natural relationships. These groups are small, self-governing, self-supporting, and self-multiplying. There is a strong sense of ownership for the raison d’etre of the circle, and there are norms that are passed on as a way of life that is caught, not as a set of rules or procedures that are passed down from on high.
- Where are there circles of three people in your business, church, neighbourhood who have shared vision and trust one another?
- “When people feel like a vision is their own they will voluntarily and joyfully sacrifice to see the vision become reality.”
2. Catalysts: Catalysts are inspirational leaders who develop an idea, start a circle, and then get out of the way. They don’t care about recognition and holding on to power. They love to empower people to pursue the vision they already carry within them. They are allergic to hierarchy and becoming the center that the movement revolves around. An example of a catalyst is Granville Sharp, who, even before Wilberforce, was the initiator of the anti-slavery movement in the 1800’s. Most of us have heard of Wilberforce, who gets all the credit, though we know nothing of Sharp, the original catalyst.
- How can we inspire people with a big idea or help to draw out the vision in folks and encourage them to go for it?
- What are some leadership models for charismatic catalysts to be who they are, and yet not mess things up by becoming the center or the bottleneck?
- How are decisions made in your organization and who holds the trump card in the decision making process?
3. Ideology: This is what I like to call the ‘Big Idea’ that grips people, or the song that already resonates with the longings in people’s hearts. For example, these days people are moved by the vision for justice, and ready to get involved in stopping human trafficking or dealing with poverty.
What big idea has gripped you so that you would voluntarily sacrifice to see that idea become a reality?
4. A Preexisting Network: All movements are birthed out of a preexisting organization. For example, the Quakers were a platform for the antislavery movement in England.
How can existing organizations serve new movements being birthed from within, instead of fearing them and trying to control or stop them?
5. Champions: These are folks who are salesman for the ‘Big Idea’. They are people persons and hyperactive networkers. In the anti-slavery movement a fellow named Thomas Clarkson worked with Sharp to spread the idea of anti-slavery.
Who are some people persons you know who are great at networking and selling a ‘Big Idea’?