All of my friends who have read The Starfish and the Spider have told me that the first 158 pages were both interesting and frustrating. The stories of the power of decentralization were compelling and engaging. What’s not to like about the “little” apaches taking on the “big” Spanish Army? Or decentralized Napster wreaking havoc on the centralized music industry? Or rag tag Al Quaeda…oh.
That’s when the frustration set in. While decentralization is very effective at attacking, confronting and deconstructing (or in some cases destroying) centralized entities, what good are they? What can they do that is constructive?
As one of my older friends commented in a most exasperated voice, “What good are starfish? They just lie there. At least Spiders build webs.”
Even the stories of positive “starfish” organizations like Craig’s List and Alcoholics Anonymous had a frustrating downside: They don’t make money. They can’t pass on assets in an enduring way that can last beyond the personalities of those running the “circles”.
So, what’s the answer?
Some, in applying this starfish thinking to the church, have advocated a return to home churches or informal networks of Christians without any formalized (and especially paid) leadership. No buildings, no foundations, no bylaws, no structure. Just Christians hanging out together for Jesus doing the mission of Jesus.
But what if you already have assets like a building? Or you want to provide for some security for leadership so that they can stay put and shepherd the flock? What if you want to start a hospital or university to carry on the mission? Or what if you want to insure faithfulness to a vision beyond the personality of the founder? (I have no idea what will happen to “Craig’s list” after “Craig”.)
As soon as you buy something or “resolve” something or pass down something or pass on something, you have a “head” of some kind. And the informal, organic, spontaneously splitting starfish becomes a “spider”. Remember how the US Army conquered the Aztecs? They gave them cows. As soon as they had stuff they had to settle down and protect it. And in many ways, that is what has happened to so many of the home churches or informal Christian groups I have known. They were changed as soon as they had something to protect. And in most cases, that was cows…but kids.
As soon as you want a children’s ministry, or a youth program or you want to insure that there is something for your kids that is safe and secure for them to belong to or to grow into, you become a spider in some way. Indeed, security always leads to centralization of some kind. (Which is why Ebay bought PayPal and why every decentralized online merchant relies on some trusty centralized banking system so that people will give them their credit cards. Would you give yours to some stranger named “Craig” just because he has a list?)
Which is why on page 159, the light bulb goes on. This is when the authors introduce the idea of the The Combo Special of the Hybrid Organization. Figuring out this "Hybrid Sweet Spot", this right combination of some centralization and some decentralized is one of the most important ongoing decisions for any changing, adapting organization.
This process of discerning what must be centralized for the sake security and what can be left decentralized for flexibility, creativity and adaptation is the key leadership question of our age.
And so, ponder with me: What MUST be centralized in a healthy organization and why? What is necessary for good, constructive decentralization?