We’ve hit some milestones on our blog this week.
This weekend, Bob Morris posted our 1500th blog post. Our “blogging team” experiment began last April (April, 2009), when we got serious about regularly producing content on this blog. We are not one of the “big” blogs. But we have seen our page views grow from 72 per day last April to just over 700 per day this month. (This month is a little inflated – I wrote a post about Coach John Wooden last October that received a lot of readers after his death). But even without the Coach Wooden article, we have grown every month, and we now know without a doubt that we have a growing community of fellow learners reading our blog.
Where does the urge to blog come from? I do not know. But on our blog team of five (though Cheryl & Sara sort of count as “one”), two of us are addicted. Bob Morris posts so many posts a week that I have trouble reading them all. (I try to!) And I have averaged more than one a day for quite some time. (Still no match for Bob).
Less frequently, Karl Krayer, and Cheryl & Sara, weigh in with posts. Cheryl and Sara point us to human connection issues, and especially women in business/women in culture posts. We of course are delighted whenever they share their wisdom with us. (Read about the members of our blogging team here).
Bob provides connections with authors, stories about authors, a lifetime of overflow about books and movies and… He writes reviews, posts author interviews, and an array of other types of articles. He has taught, coached, consulted, written, reviewed (he has written over 2000 reviews for Amazon.com). To read Bob Morris is to get a business book/business author education — and so much more. Many of the authors have written him with appreciation for his reviews and interviews on this site. There may be some person somewhere who reads more business books than Bob — but I would bet there aren’t many!
I present a minimum of two new book briefings/synopses a month, one a business book, the other a social justice/poverty book. Many of my posts come from these books. But, that is only one prompt for my blog posts. I’m simply a preacher at heart. Though I left full-time ministry years ago, I still think like a preacher. Kind of a “what are the implications of this incident, this story, this book for life” approach. And, I really don’t quite know how to explain this – but whenever I grasp a message, I can’t wait to share it. Blogging has given me that outlet. I have, to put it simply, taken to blogging. I like it.
But, of course, without you the reader, we would have little reason to keep at it. We wish more would leave comments (though that too has grown in frequency). Enough of you send e-mails or leave comments to let us know that you find something useful here, that it keeps us going. Thank you.
Anyway, this is just my personal update, prompted by that little number I saw this morning – that we have now posted 1503 articles on our blog. In just over a year. Thanks for reading.
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Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom’s explain that the title of their book refers to metaphors. The starfish represents the decentralized network, one that has no central command because it is a neural network, “basically a network of cells…get this: for the starfish to move, one of the arms must convince the other arms that it’s a good idea to do so…Starfish have an incredible quality to them: If you cut an arm off, most of these animals grow a new arm. And with some varieties, …the animal can replicate itself from a single piece of an arm.” What about the spider? With its eight legs coming out of a centralized body, tiny head, and eight eyes, it represents a centralized network. “If you chop off the head, it dies. Maybe it could survive without a leg or two, and could possibly even stand to lose a couple of eyes, but it certainly could couldn’t survive without its head.”
Throughout their lively narrative, Brafman and Beckstrom rigorously examine primarily centralized organizations (e.g. Aztecs and the Spanish army) and primarily decentralized organizations (e.g. the Spanish conquistadores and Apaches) noting the most significant differences that help to explain why – when in conflict — the former are vulnerable to the latter. In fact, when attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more open and decentralized, can easily be mistaken for a centralized organization, has intelligence distributed throughout the entire system, its open systems can easily mutate, it can “easily sneak up on you [while] growing incredibly quickly.”
Readers will welcome the research-driven approach that Brafman and Beckstrom in this volume, especially the fact that after identifying the “what” (i.e. the central issues to be addressed), they focus almost all of their attention on “why” and “how” leaderless organizations are unstoppable. They offer dozens of real-world examples of organizations that have – or compete with those that have – “a hidden force” and “the harder you fight this force, the stronger it gets. The more chaotic it seems, the more resilient it is. The more you [or anyone else] tries to control it, the more unpredictable it becomes.” How can this be true? How can the absence of structure, leadership, and formal organization, once considered a weakness, become a major asset? It is for starfish organizations; however, for spider organizations, as already indicated, it is a liability. They die.
An Englishman, Thomas Clarkson, was relentless in promoting the abolition of slavery. He was inherently hyperactive and operated well in nonhierarchical environments. He formed a circle and was the only member who worked on the issue full-time. “For the next sixty years, Clarkson dedicated his life to the movement.” Nonetheless, he was soon forgotten. “Credit for the abolition of slavery [in 1833, years before its abolition in America] was attributed to William Wilberforce, a politician who was the movement’s ally and spokesman in Parliament.” As the example of Clarkson clearly demonstrates, the various leaders of a decentralized movement never bother to secure recognition for themselves. Most people credit the success of a movement to the wrong person, in this instance a politician rather than an evangelist, because they do not understand the power of a starfish organization.
Perhaps to a greater extent than do “champions,” those whom Brafman and Beckstrom characterize as “catalysts” have a much greater importance to decentralized organizations. Why? Because, after initiating a circle and then fading away into the background, moving on, the catalyst transfers ownership and responsibility to each circle’s members. Think of catalysts as being those who concentrate on establishing an organizational infrastructure (especially in terms of its ideology) and do so inconspicuously. Their satisfaction has nothing to do with attracting attention and gaining power or praise; rather, with helping strengthen and advance a cause in which they passionately believe. In this context, I am reminded of the insights that Jeanne Liedtka, Robert Rosen, and Robert Wiltbank share in The Catalyst: How You Can Become an Extraordinary Growth Leader, Mother Teresa, the Missionaries of Charity In Chapter 6, they explain how to lead pragmatically and idealistically at the same time when leading a growth initiative: First, identify the starting point and destination, then recruit an A team because it takes the best people who “are fully committed to a shared vision [and who will] consistently perform at the top of their game.”
Moreover, as Brafman and Beckstrom correctly emphasize in the final chapter, it is critically important for everyone involved to be at the top of their game when a decentralized organization’s “sweet spot” has been identified. That is, “the point along the centralized-decentralized continuum that yields the best competitive advantage. In a way, finding the sweet spot is like Goldilocks eating the various bowls of porridge: this one is too hot, this one is too cold, but this one is just right.”
There are others, however, who ask Brafman and Beckstrom how they can be a better starfish in what seems to be a spiderlike organization. That is an excellent question. “We pointed them to the model of Mother Teresa, who created the Missionaries of Charity, a starfishlike organization that has spread out to 133 countries, while still working within the confines of an ancient, hierarchical organization.” My guess is that, during the decades to come, the number of organizations that are primarily starfishlike will increase and the number of organizations that are primarily spiderlike will decrease. But none will be either a starfish or spider because there will always be a need for both order/structure and “chaos”/freedom.
Here is an excerpt from article written by Michael Watkins for the Harvard Business Review blog. To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
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Once a year, I chair a future enterprise leader development program at a Fortune 500 firm. It includes elements on strategy, innovation, leadership, decision-making, corporate diplomacy, and executive presence. The most powerful element is a one-week module on enterprise perspective, the core of which is presentations by virtually all of company’s senior executive team. It’s all about leaders teaching leaders.
The program highlights the critical role that senior leaders play, in the best companies, in teaching the next generation. It’s become an acid test for me of company greatness: if your senior leadership isn’t investing a significant amount of their own time in educating high-potentials, that doesn’t bode well for your business.
The single most impressive aspect of the presentations I listened to was the common core of values and priorities shared by the team. While they run far-flung parts of the business, there was tremendous coherence in what they said about what’s really important. The driving theme was that great performance is a direct consequence of having great people and a great culture. This was certainly the case during the recession, when the company moved nimbly and effectively. Needed restructuring was done, but in the most humane way possible. And while pay cuts were necessary, the top team took the biggest reductions on a percentage basis. This attention to preserving the culture left the company well positioned to accelerate out the other side.
Beyond the impressive commonality of purpose and values, the executives individually articulated aspects of their shared leadership philosophy that deserve to be highlighted. Here are some excerpts:
“There may be many opinions, but only one set of facts.” This reflects the reality that fact-based management (and continuous improvement) is core to how the company does business. If you get mired down in divergent opinions, seek the truth.
“You have two ears and just one mouth for a reason.” Executives in this business are serious about listening and assessing before they act. Even at the most senior levels, executives are very careful not to become deaf to beliefs that run counter to their own, and are genuinely committed to life-long learning.
“I don’t let people delegate upward.” The executive who said this was careful to note that his people could of course come to him for advice, but he never let them offload problems that were within their capabilities to solve.
“I manage between the white lines.” By this, the executive meant that he gave his people the scope to do things their way, so long the results were not likely to drive the business off the road. It reflects an understanding of the need to balance judicious risk management with empowerment and innovation.
“What’s the worst thing that could happen if the worst thing happened?” Finally, this quote reflects the attention that the team gives to anticipating potential “surprises” and developing contingency plans. While real surprises happen, this business is unlikely to get sideswiped by a surprise. I plan to pick up some of these themes and develop them in more detail in future posts.
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To read the complete article, check out other articles and resources, and/or sign up for a free subscription to Harvard Business Review’s Daily Alerts, please click here.
Michael Watkins is Chairman of Genesis Advisers. He is the author of many books, including The First 90 Days and Your Next Move.