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The Starfish And The Spider, Part 8: There Are New Rules To The Game

Here is the final part of the series. You will see a number of recurring themes here, in what virtually amounts to the book’s own summary of itself.

1. Diseconomies of Scale – small outfits with minimal overheads can bring revolutions. How the church needs to hear that, in place of megachurches, buildings, stipends and so on. I seem to be doing myself out of a job!

2. The Network Effect – adding one more person to the network costs little but adds value to them and the existing network. Assumes greater sharing by new network members – this won’t work if we treat people as pew fodder.

3. The Power of Chaos – standardisation squelches creativity. In a starfish, anyone can have a go. Churches think of newcomers as those who can be fitted into the currently vacant jobs. We don’t start with people and see what they can do and then shape church around that.

4. Knowledge at the Edge – not just from on high but the margins too. (Typically postmodern!) Body of Christ metaphor. God works from the fringes, too.

5. Everyone Wants to Contribute – people join a starfish for this reason. This requires reconceiving received models of church if we are to operate as starfish. Many wouldn’t join us for this reason.

6. Beware the Hydra Response – attacking a starfish organisation conventionally generates a many-headed response. Again, I think of persecution in the early church. As they were attacked in one town, they fled to another and more churches began.

7. Catalysts Rule – they inspire people to action rather than running the show, and they know when to let go. However, if one becomes a CEO, the starfish is in jeopardy. This is a radically different vision for leadership. How easy it is to default to CEO.

8. The Values Are the Organisation – ideology is the fuel of the starfish. In the church we have too easily defaulted to ‘institution’ as the definition of organisation, whether it’s seeing episcopacy as the esse of the church (as in Anglo-Catholic theology), or in seeing recruitment of new members as a matter of maintaining the institution rather than sharing the Gospel.

9. Measure, Monitor and Manage – measurement still happens despite ambiguity, but in different ways. It looks at the activity of the circles, how distributed the network is, the health of a circle, continued participation of members, etc. They are more dynamic measurements than static numbers and harder to quantify. Puts a new light on the October Count for Methodists. How would we go about assessing the spiritual health of our groups? How would we handle the inevitable subjectivity? It would also require sensitive handling when the assessment is negative.

10. Flatten or Be Flattened – the power of decentralisation is causing more companies to flatten or at least become hybrids. Decentralisation looks chaotic, even like entropy, but it is powerful. This sounds like an argument of the ‘You must move with the times’ variety. The real question is whether decentralisation is consistent with Scripture. In many ways it is. We have to be wary of where particular applications contradict Christian theology, whether it is eBay‘s ‘people are basically good’ creed (which they couldn’t completely live with, hence the hybrid with PayPal) or the use of the theory in support of violence (al Qaeda, Animal Liberation Front). 

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The Starfish And The Spider, Part 7: The Hybrid Organisation

Part seven below – a bit shorter today.

Not everything about centralisation is bad. It is sometimes possible to hybridise spider and starfish philosophies in an organisation. There are two main types of hybrid:

1. A Centralised Company that Decentralises the Customer Experience – eBay is built on mutual trust between buyers and sellers – ‘people are basically good’ – but  PayPal operates on ‘no trust’. Amazon is centralised, but user reviews are read avidly. Some Christians are understandably nervous about the eBay creed that ‘people are basically good’, and rightly so, but a church will not function without trust. It also needs accountability.

2. A Centralised Company that Decentralises Internal Parts of the Business – e.g., make each section of the company independent and accountable on a profit-and-loss basis or use ‘appreciative inquiry’ to pair people from different parts of the company who share their ideas non-hierarchically. Methodist churches are not independent in this way, except for the schedules. Non-hierarchical sharing is probably something many would like, though, but may generally be resisted by some ministers.

The decentralised sweet spot is the point along the centralised-decentralised continuum that yields the best competitive position. It may change over time. This is a problem of agility for the church, an especially tricky issue for older churches.

The Starfish And The Spider, Part 5: The Catalyst’s Tools

Here is part five of my notes and summary. My comments again are in red.

Genuine interest in othersisn’t this simply what Christian love is meant to be about? Not knowing people because they can be useful, but for who they are.

Loose connections – catalysts know a lot of people, (but few of them deeply). This gives them more people to connect together. Does this mean they have to be extraverts?

Mapping – catalysts are constantly thinking who in their networks can help, but they are also making new connections and circles. Too few of such people in the church. Is this why a [named friend of mine] can’t survive in the ministry?

Desire to help – this is essential to the work of a catalyst, otherwise the circles are me-centred and will collapse. What do we want to help people with in the church, and what do people want help with? Do our answers reflect missional priorities?

Passion – this, rather than command and control, is the drumbeat. In the church, we have less command and control being a voluntary society, but whether we are characterised by passion is a question that would draw highly varying answers.

Meet people where they are – not a directive advice-giver, but an intent listener. Giving advice creates hierarchy. Non-directive counselling is controversial in the church,  because it seems to go against notions of ‘absolute truth’. There is a need to loose people from a dependency culture upon pastors and in that the non-directive approach is helpful, but it can become about people following whatever they conceive their own truth to be. The guard against this in starfish circles is presumably the ideology.

Emotional Intelligence – however intelligent a catalyst is, leading with emotions helps create bonds of kinship. This seems to be about the importance of creating relationships rather than just using people in service of the cause.

Trust – a catalyst trusts the network and consequent outcomes without controlling it. Quite a challenge to depend on trust, not control.

Inspiration – inspiring others to a goal that isn’t about personal gain for them or the catalyst: “This isn’t about me.” Plenty of Christian parallels here, seeking glory for God.

Tolerance for ambiguity – ability to cope with not knowing, and with chaos. Not always what we want to hear, but this could be viewed as living by faith!

Hands-off Approach – getting out of the way. The circles may be frustrated with lack of leadership, but asking ‘What are we supposed to be doing?’ stimulates action. Again, something very humble here. Not easy to do, counter-intuitive. But ultimately it’s what Jesus did with the apostles (notwithstanding the gift of the Spirit). One query would be the issue of entropy.

Receding – having inspired action, catalysts get out of the way and let the people they’ve connected get on with it. Again, humility, it’s not about me, enabling and empowering – deeply Christian and very far from how we often practise church.

The Starfish And The Spider, Part 4: Decentralised Organisations Stand On Five Legs

Here is part four of my summary and notes.

1. Circles – independent and autonomous groups. Different levels of ease in joining, different sizes and thus different levels of intimacy, but not lawless – they share the ‘norms’ of the organisation and grow in trust. Cell church, base communities and the like would probably be the Christian equivalent.

2. The Catalyst – an inspirational figure who initiates a circle but then fades into the background, handing over leadership to others and disappearing. Steve Chalke with his various initiatives? In Scripture, John the Baptist is a classic catalyst – ‘he must increase, but I must decrease.’

3. Ideology – the core beliefs are what keep a circle together. How strong the beliefs are and how strongly they are held will give indications of how long the circle will stay together. There may again be some broad parallels with churches here, although they may not completely hold. Circles with weak ideology hold while there is support in wider society for Christian values, but less so when the latter fades – to that end, this is true. Churches with stronger ideology and commitment probably do largely survive longer than others, but sustained opposition may affect that.

4. The Pre-Existing Network – a catalyst stands a better chance of building a circle if a platform can be built on a pre-existing decentralised network which functions as an infrastructure. Granville Sharp did this with the Quakers in the anti-slavery movement. The Internet makes decentralised organisations easier to start and to find. Christianity began from the pre-existing network of Judaism. Rarely does a group spring up in Christianity that has not been based on something else. (Although sometimes it is a reaction against it.) Fresh Expressions certainly do this – to the point that one URC minister friend called them ‘parasites’.

5. The Champion – catalysts need a charismatic, hyperactive person who will implement their vision and take it to the next level. For the anti-slavery movement it was Thomas Clarkson. However, he was not concerned about securing recognition for himself, and this last quality is the most obviously Christian of this approach. I find it hard to think of combinations of catalysts and champions in the Bible, but not worrying about recognition is deeply biblical, and not always what is wanted in a CEO-led, personality-driven church.

The Starfish And The Spider, Part 2: Eight Principles Of Decentralisation

Here is part two of my summary of The Starfish And The Spider. Of the eight principles of decentralisation enunciated here, six fall together fairly early on in the book, but numbers seven and eight are separately scattered later on.

First principle of decentralisation: when attacked, a decentralised organisation tends to become even more open and decentralised.E.g., killing of Apache Nant’ans, suing of P2P networks. Decentralisation is not new to Christianity with the emerging church. Not only did it exist in movements like the Brethren, it has surely also been a reason for the flourishing of underground churches in countries where Christians are persecuted for their faith. If persecution of the church broke out in the west, Brafman and Beckstrom’s theory suggests our spider structures would leave us vulnerable to decimation, but a move to starfish decentralisation could help us survive and thrive. If this were to be true, what steps should we take now?

Second principle of decentralisation: it’s easy to mistake starfish for spiders. Whatever the advantages of centralisation, distributed power can make for quicker decisions and adaptation. No-one’s in charge, yet everyone is. No-one owns the group. Each can do what they believe is right.

Third principle of decentralisation: an open system doesn’t have central intelligence; the intelligence is spread throughout the system. Information and knowledge naturally filters in from the edges, where the action is. This is about working from the margins, a typical postmodern theme, but also one that resonates with the Gospel. God uses a small, insignificant nation like Israel; the Messiah is born into obscurity, salvation comes through the Cross, etc.

Fourth principle of decentralisation: open systems can easily mutate. Note the spread of AA. Those of us who work in centralised churches will appreciate this point, given how long it can take to get permission for action. It would be interesting to hear the perspectives of Christians in more federal or independent traditions.

Fifth principle of decentralisation: the decentralised organisation sneaks up on you. Fast mutation means rapid growth and with it, the quick takeover of an industry. Brafman and Beckstrom cite the changes in the music industry, from the dominance of individual performers, to the power of the record labels in signing artists, and then the P2P networks, the last phase taking only five years to cause damage. However, they might want also to bear in mind the way things generally happen faster today, due to improvements in communications technology (on which P2P depends). One might think of the progress made by the early Church as a parallel, but it doesn’t entirely work. What began in a largely decentralised form became more and more centralised (‘catholic’) and eventually achieved a takeover through Constantine, which meant considerable centralisation. So a Christian equivalent is difficult to find.

Sixth principle of decentralisation: as industries become decentralised, overall profits decrease. The record companies lost profits, and the P2Ps hardly made any. For a church based on megachurches and stipendiary clergy, ‘profit’ is an issue. Well, income is. Decentralised churches have lower running costs: they have fewer buildings and programmes, and their leaders are far more likely to be bivocational. Rather, they concentrate on community and relationships, qualities that are not absent in traditional churches and indeed are ascribed high value there, but which do not always get the concentration they deserve because centralised structures get in the way.

Seventh principle of decentralisation: put people into an open system and they’ll automatically want to contribute. Apache software, Wikipedia, etc – no profit for contributors, just the pleasure of contributing and helping others. There may be chaos, but there will also be creativity. And we wonder about the problems of getting people to participate in church life. Is it because we are too centralised and there is little incentive, only a sense of obligation and moral pressure we put on people we are trying to persuade to help out? Do we prefer orderliness to chaos and this miss out on creativity? Cf. keeping ‘good order’ at communion is biblical but wrongly centred on a person and an office, not on teaching (1 Cor 1 & 11).

Eighth principle of decentralisation: when attacked, centralised organisations tend to become more centralised. Obvious examples w.r.t. Islamic terrorism and centralisation of US ‘Federal’ government. This could be life and death for the church, though, when persecution comes. 

The Starfish And The Spider, Part 1: Some Introductory Notes

As reported in recent posts, I have been typing up some quick notes on The Starfish And The Spider as part of my sabbatical work. I have split them into several parts. They will appear over the next few days, one part per day. You will find certain themes recurring, not least those of humility and trust.

I am following a convention in that my comments should appear in a different colour from the rest of the text.

I would be very interested in your comments.

So here goes with some introductory words.

The main thesis of the book lies in the metaphor to which the title alludes. Historic organisations are like spiders, with a central control point of a brain. If the legs are progressively removed, the organisation is crippled more and more. Starfish are different. There is no central nervous system. Neural characteristics are distributed throughout their body. Cut a starfish into two and they will both grow into new, separate creatures. Today, we are seeing similar changes in companies and organisations in society. On the Internet, P2P networks, eBay, craigslist and others all exhibit this starfish characteristic. Similarly, political campaigning organisations such as the Animal Liberation Front and terrorist groups like al-Qaeda operate like this.

Historically, tribes like the Apaches were able to survive the attacks of Cortes because they were decentralised and ‘leaderless’, unlike the Aztecs and Incas, who were simply weaker spiders than the Spanish spider.

The book examines the characteristics of starfish groups in more detail, considers how they might be countered and looks at hybrid companies that combine elements of starfish and spider.

My interest in the book comes from it having become influential in emerging and missional church circles. I want to consider how far its models are consonant with a biblically rooted faith, and how far it is simply a business management model that has been as uncritically adopted in these parts of the church as the consumer corporation approach, where the senior pastor is the CEO, has in megachurch and other post-Enlightenment style churches.

Centralised organisations have a coercive structure and they need this to function well. Decentralised groups have an open structure. Leaders have influence through their example but not power. Rules exist, but they are not enforced from the top, they are distributed across the network. Decisions can be made anywhere. How does this compare with apostolic ministry? Paul has authority, but he has to plead and exhort; he also calls people to imitate him as he imitates Christ. It is not completely decentralised, although Paul himself pops up separately from the original apostles. However, it seems far from later and contemporary authoritarian or centralised models of church and leadership. There is a question here about the biblical appropriateness of much church leadership. 1 Thessalonians 5:12ff talks about ‘leaders’ in the church who ‘are over you’, but the basis for their receiving respect is their ‘hard work’.