Our Organization as a Starfish

Chris Christopher
Southwest Region
San Diego Men’s Division

After five years on the MDI Board of Directors, former Chairman Chris Christopher of San Diego reveals a view of the organization that may help MDI in defining itself and guiding itself.

Several years ago I read an interesting book about two kinds of organizations. I shared this book with the Board in 2013. I still find the issues discussed intriguing and timely for MDI. The book compared organizations using the analogies of spiders and starfish.

Spiders are centrally controlled. Starfish are decentralized. How do you know? Cut the head of a spider in half: dead spider. Starfish don’t have heads. Cut it in half: two starfish. Ever watch a starfish move? Each arm from time to time experiments with moving. Should the arm like its new position it attempts to persuade the other arms to come along. Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t. Spider legs go where the head decides.  

Now envision your men’s team. If something happens to the MDI international organization, or even the region or even the DC, what changes on your men’s team? Do you cease to exist? On the other hand, if an edict were to ever come down from International, do you implement it or are you more like the arms of a starfish? Maybe, maybe not.  

Understanding the identity of an organization helps the organization adopt leadership styles that are best suited for the organization. Spiders are pretty easy to understand. They have a hierarchy and are centrally controlled. The head (management) tells the underlings what to do, when to do it and sometimes even how to get it done. Starfish organizations are very different. A very small management team really has limited authority and works with influence. They often are the central keeper of the ideology, and they empower different cells (teams) to experiment with all kinds of ways of doing things so long as the core ideology of the organization is maintained. Growth can be exponential and often chaotic depending on the success of the cells.  

During my tenure as Chairman, I found MDI to be highly decentralized on a day-to-day basis. We are built around a core ideology that we express in many different ways. I believe there is quite a bit we can learn from studying other decentralized organizations. I continue to look at those types of organizations to learn what I can to help improve MDI.

So what do you think? Are we more like a starfish or spiders? Should you want to know more now, pick up a copy of “The Starfish and the Spider, The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations” by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom. It is a fun and instructive read. Until then, no matter the form of our organization or your team, it will always be the case that – no matter what you think – you know what to do.    

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