Of spiders and starfish

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Of spiders and starfish

I recently heard someone use this metaphor for the first time, and found it really interesting.

In essense, spiders and starfish may look alike, both being multi-legged creatures, but upon investigation prove to be very different.  Cut a leg off a spider, and you get a slightly disabled seven-legged (less effective) creature; cut off its head and you have a dead spider. In contrast, if you cut off the arm of a starfish, it will grow a new one. Even more amazing, but the severed arm can grow an entirely new body.  So, where injury disables on kills a spider, it actually allows a starfish to replicate itself.  The reason why starfish are able to do this is because unlike spiders, they are decentralized; every major organ is replicated across each arm.

Normally, this metaphor is used to describe two different organisational structures.  Hierarchical Spider organisations, have a central command and control (head), and dependent parts (legs). Although relatively strong, it is easy to devise a strategy for attacking and destroying a Spider; survival is impossible without a head.  In contrast, Starfish organisations, on the other hand, have limited central command and control. Typically they have an inspirational leader (or catalyst), and a decentralized, adaptive, organizational structure that is often difficult to define. Because of this, despite a superficial resemblance to a spider, each “leg” is mostly autonomous. So, just like in nature, when a starfish organisation loses a leg, the base will regenerate the leg, and the leg can grow into a new starfish.

I want to suggest that this is also an excellent metaphor for the nature of problems, and making sense of them.  Here’s why …

I think that we often treat intractable or complex problems (starfish) as simple (spiders).  If we consider the issue of mine safety that Aiden’s been writing about recently, the prevailing mindset seems to be that that if we chop off the “lack of compliance head” of the safety problem, the issue will largely be solved.  The problem is, safety is a starfish, not a spider.  Superficially chopping off any extremity simply causes the problem to grow or even spawn new problems. I can think of many other examples in organisations: Knowledge continuity, culture change, talent retention, wellness.  And in society: crime, health (specifically HIV) and the list goes on.

If we can adopt the habit of determining upfront whether we’re dealing with a spider or a starfish problem, it’ll probably save us spending a lot of time and money on interventions that make the problem worse.

So the question becomes, how do we deal with starfish problems?  We’ll explore that in my next post …

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