Jan 262010

A spider is an eight-legged arachnid that has a head attached to a central body. Pull a leg off a spider and most can still walk, even if a little lopsided. Cut off the head, and the spider dies. Not so the starfish. While many people know that if you cut off a starfish’s leg, it will grow back, most don’t know that a starfish’s major organs are replicated throughout its body. One species, Linckia, can regenerate an entire starfish from each of its severed parts. A starfish is a decentralized network. A final interesting factoid — “for the starfish to move, one of the arms must convince the other arms that it’s a good idea to do so.” Talk about an excuse for uncoordination: “but I can’t get my limbs to work together.”

These facts about, and the first quote, come from a delightful little book titled The Starfish and Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom. Agilists proclaim the power and desirability of self-organizing teams, and this book offers some insight into what decentralized (the term the authors use rather than self-organizing) teams can accomplish. One point they make is that decentralized teams may not make “better” decisions, but they will be “faster” decisions.

One fascinating part of the book lists 10 questions that are indicators of the degree of “starfish-ness.” While some of these indicators seem a little farfetched for the business world, others may help you decide how decentralized you are, or aren’t.

  1. Is there a person in charge? Completely decentralized organisms have no head, as in there is no “head” of the Internet. They relate a funny story circa 1995, when a CEO looking for startup funding couldn’t convince a room of potential investors that there wasn’t an Internet president — the concept was beyond them.
  2. Are there headquarters? Starfish organizations tend to be very distributed; they don’t have HQ.
  3. If you thump it on the head will it die? Cut off a starfish leg (now where is that head anyway?), and it goes on its merry way. Loss of a centralized figure or a headquarters’ building can have a devastating effect on a spider organization.
  4. Is there a clear division of roles? Clear, well-defined roles are indicators of centralization.
  5. If you take out a unit, is the organization harmed? A great question in regard to the difference between functional teams and feature teams. Given a software development organization that is organized functionally, remove a function (say testing), and the effort is harmed. Given one that is organized by feature teams, removing a feature team reduces the productivity, but progress can still be made.
  6. I won’t bother to give examples with the last five questions, as you can probably come up with your own examples, or read the book.

  7. Are knowledge and power concentrated or distributed?
  8. Is the organization flexible or rigid?
  9. Can you count the employees or participants?
  10. Are working groups funded by the organization, or are they self-funding?
  11. Do working groups communicate directly or through intermediaries?

If we asked a yes/no response to each of these questions in looking at a well-constructed, self-organized team, there would be, in my opinion, four yes and six no responses (you can take the quiz yourself). So these questions aren’t all relevant for evaluating the degree of self-organization in a team, but they might form the basis for developing a relevant one. Anything that helps us understand the sometime fuzzy nature of self-organizing teams is appreciated.


Jim Highsmith

Jim Highsmith was the founding director of Cutter Consortium's Agile Product & Project Management practice.


  5 Responses to “Understanding the Nature of Self-Organizing Teams”

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  2. […] has been more like the Starfish than the Spider (what is Starfish vs. Spider? Explanation – Short & […]

  3. […] It has been more like the Starfish than the Spider (what is Starfish vs. Spider? Explanation – Short & Long)The growth has been steady and recent survey points to impressive adoption. (see this, […]

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