Dealing with starfish: lessons from the Apaches

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Dealing with starfish: lessons from the Apaches

resources-apache11Following on from my previous post where we used the metaphor of Starfish and Spiders to look at distributed vs centralised organisations or complex vs ordered problems, let’s explore how one would go about dealing with Starfish problems.

Using old-fashioned frontal or direct assault techniques when attacking a Starfish problem or organisation actually strengthens it, making it more open and more decentralised.  Death-blows are temporary, and in the end makes matters worse as it doubles the threat.  There are several reasons for this, one of which being that a key characteristic of a Starfish organisation is that collective knowledge is stored in a diffused manner throughout the system, this decentalisation makes it highly adaptive and very difficult to destroy.

Another feature of a Starfish structure, is that the structure promotes the formation of splinter, franchise and copycat groups, all operating under one ideology – often with slightly modified strategies, but using the same tactics.

So, how do we go about defeating a Starfish? …  The short answer is that there is no standard recipe.

In their book, The Starfish and the Spider: the unstoppable power of leaderless organisation“, Ori Brafman and Rod A Beckstrom relate the story of the Spanish conquest of the Astecs and Incas, and their subsequent defeat by the Apaches.

In short, when legendary Spanish explorer Cortez first laid eyes on the ancientAztec city of Tenochtitlan he was amazed at the level of civilization he found.  Expecting to find savages, he found a population of more than 15 million with it’s own language, an advanced calendar and a central government.  Cortez, coveting Aztec gold,  double-crossed the Aztec leader, Montezuma, and killed him.  In the resulting chaos, Cortez and his army surrounded the city, blocked off aqueducts and barricaded roads – within 80 days 240,000 people had starved to death.  Within just two years, the entire Aztec empire, which could trace it’s origins back thousands of years, had collapsed.  A similar fate befell the Incas and by the 1680’s the Spanish forces seemed unstoppable. Until they headed north and encountered the Apaches.

To the surprise of many, the Spanish could not seem to subdue these seemingly primitive people.  In fact, the Apaches held off the Spanish for two centuries.   They had no secret weapon, but unlike the Aztecs and Incas, the Apache society were organised very differently: they had no single city or pyramid, no scarce resources to manage, no infrastructure.  They had very little centralised political power – they were a Starfish society.

So, what led to the Apache’s demise?  They were “gifted” with cattle by the Americans, which necessitated some form of centralization as power had to be concentrated among leaders in order to manage this new resource.  As soon as this happened, the Starfish turned into a Spider (or at least a hybrid) and therefore lost it’s adaptive abilities.  Less than a century later, little was left of this once proud nation.

This doesn’t mean that the recipe to defeat a Starfish is to give it resources to manage.  It does prove though that an indirect, often counter-intuitive approach is needed in order to defeat or gain control over a Starfish.

To know which approach to take, one needs to “probe” the system, once we understand the specific context in which a Starfish problem or orgnanisation exists, potential weaknesses and interventions become clearer.  Also, we need to be open to trying different things, amplify the ones producing positive results and dampening or disrupting the others. Never put all your eggs in one basket and launch a frontal assault on a Starfish, you’ll spend a lot of time, energy and resources making the problem worse.

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