Starfish: A Decentralized Approach to Running a Business

The Hybrid Organization Path for an Inspired Structure

Did you know that if a starfish loses a leg, not only will it live to grow a new leg, but the cut off leg will become a whole new starfish. This is the idea behind a “starfish” organization – if a part of the organization is removed, it won’t hurt or destroy the company. The organization is decentralized, with no one person in charge of everything, and decision making distributed among its members.starfishorg

I didn’t realize there was a name for this and that I worked at a hybrid starfish organization until I read Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom’s book, The Starfish and the Spider. In their book they describe the two main types of organizations: the “spiders” with a stiff, top down, hierarchical approach to running a business, and the “starfish” with a decentralized approach with shared responsibility, flexibility, and focus on empowering employees. Some examples of starfish organizations are eBay, Wikipedia, and Craigslist.

I’ve always loved learning and absorbing as many different ideas and approaches as possible on any topic. It doesn’t mean I will go ahead and follow them all, but they help inspire me and I love taking the best parts and combining them into a hybrid that will work for my particular situation and need. So the hybrid starfish organization idea resonated with me very much. It is exciting to explore the potential to blend the starfish approach with aspects of a traditional organizational structure to create a hybrid method. This enables companies to create a structure that fits their needs, help strengthen the company, earn employee buy-in, and allow them to become more competitive. How the hybrid approach is developed is up to each organization – because it has to work for you and your particular needs and challenges.

“You never go full starfish” a la:

So How Can an Organization Decentralize?

As I was reading The Starfish and the Spider I recognized many familiar aspects of being a hybrid organization, some that we have considered and some we have implemented at my company, DragonSearch. The book provides great ideas on improving and understanding the starfish approach and direction.

The Ongoing Process of Finding the Sweet Spot

It’s very important to understand that this cannot be a “set it and forget it” approach. Decentralization is a work in progress, an ongoing practice which requires persistent balancing. As Brafman and Beckstrom describe it; it’s all about finding the “sweet spot.” As we grow and develop, the sweet spot will shift and we need to continually reassess to help us find the best competitive position.

The sweet spot is what works the best and is the most beneficial for your organization and clients. Your industry, client needs, your core values, your leaders’ readiness to “let go” and empower others, and your team’s readiness to step up and invest themselves in your success all play a role in this. While my organization has a fairly flat hierarchical structure and some centralized control, decentralization begins at the very top. At the beginning of this year there was a big shift in how DragonSearch was run. We went from a CEO-led approach to forming a Strategic Leadership Team of five people who are the heads of the key areas of our company. This team is responsible for ensuring the company’s health and success from all perspectives: employees, clients, finances, etc.

Our current sweet spot, which will likely be shifting with time, is in a very different spot than, for example Zappos experimentation with a Holacracy-legacy management hybrid, and now moving to a Teal organization, which is a self-management and self-organization system.

Decentralization empowers employees, creates a strong sense of community, and fosters creativity. It can also create inconsistencies. Finding the sweet spot for us is balancing the autonomy and level of decision making for all employees, and having enough structure and oversight to keep the consistency and the quality of our work.

Some of the necessary conditions we find for doing this are:

· Strong culture of shared values, investment, support for each other, personal relationships and trust. Feedback and “criticism” are not only OK but are required and welcomed as a means to help improve every aspect of the organization.

· Making sure our employees have high level expertise, are committed to continuously develop and grow, to challenge and be challenged, are focused on collaborating and helping each other by spreading the knowledge throughout the organization, are accountable, and to understand that every one of us is a leader and is responsible for our success.

· Team leadership is encouraged every step of the way through distribution of power and decision making to each employee around how they accomplish their work. Team members are empowered to be leaders and commit to helping every individual understand how they can take on responsibilities and enable them to make a difference.

· The team is part of the daily grind so they naturally have a better understanding of what will affect change and help them do a better job. Creating opportunities for continuous feedback in various forms, both in groups and individually is essential.

· The leadership team makes the final decisions but whenever possible the decision making starts by involving the entire team and asking for input and feedback, or forming committees that are open for anyone to join if they feel passionate about the particular topic. These inputs are considered when determining final outcomes.

· Embracing change and innovation by understanding that if we are unwilling to change we will be left behind.

· Employees focus on building relationships with clients who trust us to run their campaigns so we can deliver the best results.

Finding Your Best Structure for Success

Let’s explore an interesting historical example from the book, related to this business structure. It is relevant to see that organizations of all shapes and sizes can adapt many leadership models and modify them accordingly. Those that fearlessly embrace change with a clear vision for the future can often excel to a higher degree.

In the 1940’s General Motors hired Peter Ducker, legendary management consultant, to examine their success. They were not happy when Ducker’s report suggested that they should continue innovating and decentralizing more, asking customers for feedback about what they wanted and incorporating it into their design. This was a wild concept in the 1940’s! Later when Ducker worked with Toyota, they followed his advice and continued to focus on innovation. They developed a team leadership approach where each individual on the assembly line was given high level authority and teams were encouraged to improve the process and make suggestions – every suggestion was put into practice and the teams decided if the change should stay or go. By the 1980’s Toyota was far surpassing GM in quality and innovation.

Compare this to what is the norm today. Companies invest a tremendous amount into connecting with their customers and understanding what they want and need so they can use the feedback to improve their products. With social media, companies have to listen to customers – who have more power than ever. Businesses would be remiss to not utilize what customers are giving us.

Some Examples of How We Implement the Hybrid Starfish Approach:

Getting the Work Done

Account managers and team members have a great deal of freedom in how they accomplish their work. There are regular check-ins with the rest of the team and department heads to ensure consistency and quality of work and get help from others when needed.

Employee Feedback

Employees were asked how they wanted to receive feedback. Based on the input, we discontinued the weekly form feedback submission that employees felt was not effective. In place of that, we implemented a structure where feedback is shared both ways on an ongoing basis, promptly as things happen, during weekly check-ins and scrums, bi-weekly in one-on-one meeting with coaches, and semi-annually using 360-degree feedback methods.

Our Own Marketing Plan

The first steps in planning our own marketing strategy was to pull together the entire team and involve them in determining the overall goals, audiences, channels, how our efforts should be distributed, etc. Once the plan was in place, team members volunteered to oversee areas, making decisions on the goals, activities and reporting metrics for their specific bucket. Others on the team contribute during brainstorm sessions and weekly team scrums but also keep what we are doing in mind, and they share ideas and inspiration when they run into something.

Structure for the Long Run; for BOTH Team AND Clients

Ducker’s powerful teachings include statements like “communication is to be upward if it is to work at all” and “top management is a function and a responsibility rather than a rank and a privilege.” These concepts align with the vision and culture at DragonSearch. A foundation is often viewed as stagnant, like the one supporting a building, however, in a fluid business in this ever changing world – it is anticipated that modifications and embellishments will need to be made below the ground floor. We have the agility and talents in place to keep improving our organization, making knowledge and collaboration a key element in our future success, to create the most inspired environment for both our internal team AND our clients.

Now it’s Your Turn – What Worked for You?

How does your organization make decisions and encourage team leadership? To what degree have you decentralized? Where is the sweet spot for your organization? Please share your experiences and lessons learned in the comments below.

Etela Ivkovic

Etela Ivkovic

SVP of Operations & HR at DragonSearch at Dragon Search Marketing
Etela injects passion and inspiration into the operation and culture of DragonSearch, as she energizes the power of the team and the entire organization, always re-inventing every aspect that can be elevated to the next level. As Senior Vice President of Operations & HR she is the foundational anchor overseeing company operations and progression. Etela was the first Dragon in 2007 and has since been playing a key role in growing the company and its employees, who love calling themselves “Dragons.” Etela has given workshops on digital marketing topics at Social Shake-Up, NYS Small Business Development Center Staff Conference, Webgrrls NYC Chapter, SCORE Association, SUNY New Paltz, and SUNY Ulster. Etela is an avid figure skater and loves to hike and go on travel adventures with her husband and daughter.
Etela Ivkovic
Etela Ivkovic
Etela Ivkovic

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