Starfish? Spiders? More Like Birds.

In the circles I move in, there’s been a lot of discussion lately about Starfish and Spiders; reference to the 2006 book by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom.

The idea behind the book, which I have not read (why should I have to fund these guys just to understand their point), is that top-down command and control style organizations resemble a spider, and that if the head of the spider is removed, the organization dies.

A starfish organization, in contrast, can survive damage, and in fact after one of its arms is severed can not only repair the arm, but the severed arm can re-grow a new body. Nice enough analogy, and good for getting the point across to thick-skulled CEO’s still mourning the apparent loss of their cheese.

However, I find the analogy a bit weak; the “starfish” concept doesn’t actually explain a lot of the behavioral properties that underlie “starfish” organizations. Folks in the coworking community rightly believe that it is a starfish-style movement: leaderless and self-healing.

Flocking behavior (as seen with birds and insects) is a more instructive analogy to me. On first glance, many naïvely assume that flocks follow a leader. Not true. Individual members of a flock obey just three simple rules, and this is all that’s required to produce complex flocking behavior:

  • Separation: Steer to avoid crowding local flockmates
  • Alignment: Steer towards the average heading of local flockmates
  • Cohesion: Steer to move towards the average position of local flockmates

Quoting from Wikipedia (so it must be true), “In flocking simulations, there is no central control; each bird behaves autonomously. In other words, each bird has to decide for itself which flocks to consider as its environment. Usually environment is defined as a circle (2D) or sphere (3D) with a certain radius (representing reach). A basic implementation of a flocking algorithm has complexity O(n2) – each bird searches through all other birds to find those who falls into his environment.

The implementation of coworking is flock-like. The spread of coworking is starfishy.

The reason why so many people have trouble defining coworking is because it defies centralized control, or the notion of a flock leader.  The reason why people say, “the only way to understand coworking is to do it,” is because it is fundamentally a flocking behavior which relies on individual execution of the flocking algorithm rules.

Flocking also explains why so many coworking environments end up selecting for the right people, with no defined rules or central control; each bird chooses whether the environment is right for her. The flock self selects.

So, if you’re having trouble explaining why your local coworking group has anything to do with starfish, maybe it’s time to start talking about your flock instead.