I feel a little bit late to the party on this one. Particularly in my Mideast travels, I have heard this book referenced to in discussions about how to do ministry. Finally, after a couple of years, I decided I needed to read and process The Starfish and the Spider. It has been referred to as one of the most important books in business and leadership, a "provocative new way to look at the world," as well as a new revolution.
The Spider represents organizations that have a head, are hierarchical, and are centralized. Cut off the head and the spider dies. Think General Motors or the former Soviet Union or AT&T before 1984. Starfish represents communities that have no head, are not top down, and are decentralized. Cut a part off, and each will generate into a whole new starfish. Think the Internet or eBay or Skype or Wikipedia or House Churches.
The argument of the book is that organizations are ultimately more effective, creative, and intelligent when they look like Starfish. An open system that is flat encourages greater involvement, a greater sharing of power and knowledge, and has greater resilience. Cut off a part, and a new organization might replace it. Starfish are more amorphous and fluid, whereas Spider organizations that depend upon structure are more rigid. Things can be messy and chaotic, but with Starfish you get incredible creativity. What holds a Spider together is a strong, authoritarian head. Starfish, on the other hand, are held together by catalysts and ideologies.
Call me a modernist or a traditionalist (or an autocrat – after all I am a "Senior" Pastor), but for all the positives, the book has some serious flaws. The main one, in my mind, is a tendency to overstate the advantages of Starfish and exaggerate the weaknesses of Spiders. According to the authors, in top down organizations followers are not inspired to give it their all. Leaders want to control what is happening, and creativity is limited. Is this true? There is certainly the potential for this, but it is also true that, with the right leadership, followers will be inspired way beyond themselves. Great leaders are not as interested in control as they are in serving their followers, and their great delight is unleashing creativity.
One of my worst courses at San Diego State was a Political Science course taught by a professor who decided to create a Starfish environment. Everything was decentralized, and the class was invited to design the course. It was messy and chaotic, and ultimately a waste of time and money. Honestly, it was one of the courses where nothing was really learned.
To the book's credit, The Starfish and the Spider, does introduce a hybrid model, where leaders give teams latitude to have a measure of independence and be creative. The authors call it hitting the "sweet spot." But to me, it sounds more like Spiders being what Spider's are supposed to be – allowing for enough decentralization for creativity, but sufficient structure and controls to ensure consistency.
The authors see a new world emerging, where organizations like churches will more and embrace a Starfish model, gravitating to house churches where small can provide a fundamental advantage. Maybe…but my general observation is that most end up as leaderless groups with a far greater potential for theological confusion and drift. What's needed are churches with the kind of leadership that creates growth, builds momentum and movements and makes cultural impact, while always aiming to become smaller (i.e. create community, unleash gifts, invite everyone to the table, and shepherd people's needs).