Of insects & startups

Few months ago, I started doing remote-only (i.e. skype+email) pro bono advisory activity for a startup.

One of the first steps was the identification of the “cultural framework” for the activity, and what better framework than some oft-talked about books?

I will not discuss in this post the specific activity, but instead some ideas that I gave as a feed-back on the specific books- and I will refer to other books and material as well.

The focus is startups- but you can (as I did in the pasts) use the same principles in other activities, from projects to business development.

Table of contents

1. Introduction: lessons from insects & co
1.1. Spider: centralized control
1.2. Starfish: resilience
1.3. Ants: self-organizing
2. Applying the lessons to your organization
3. Bibliography

1. Introduction: lessons from insects & co

Once in a while, a book is published that tries to derive from nature some organizational lesson.

A typical example is the ants: you can read everything… and the opposite.

Why? Because, often, the author does not simply describe- an action that, in itself, would already imply selecting what to describe.

In this type of books, it is only natural that the author(s) generate new ideas, that are mainly based on…

…what they believed before adopting the animals are the vehicle to tell their own theory.

While reviewing two books that my friend suggested (see the bibliography section), I looked for something introductory but still serious about the social organization of the ants.

And, by reading some research material (see the ants section), I started refreshing some other ideas and readings about not simply the structure of organizations, but also their purpose.

This posting is a short introduction: if you are interested, read other material on virtual or dynamic organizations that I wrote few years ago here, or use the links provided to read further material.

And if you are too lazy but interested… let me know: if enough interest is expressed, I will summarize my readings on the subject, and post reviews of each source.

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1.1. Spider: centralized control

A spider is the typical centralized entity, one head and multiple legs.

As Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom in their “The Starfish And The Spider” say (pag. 34) “If you chop the spider’s head, it dies.”

Well, without being so dramatic, a spider is the organization where nothing is delegated: everything depends on a central “head”, the boss.

It is currently out of favour to create or structure organizations around the spider principle, but, as it will become evident, I think that a spider organization is the only way to structure something new.

It is nice to decentralize, but if you still have not defined what your organization is supposed to do, how can you decentralize?

At the beginning, you need to identify the scope, purpose, and guidelines for your activity.

And, in the initial phase of an activity, that I along with others call “the heroic phase”, you will see that your carefully crafted plan is not worth the paper it is written on, unless you remember that it is a plan.

Being and acting as a spider, in this phase, means remembering a simple rule: do not add people to your time just because they are available and you are a good communicator- and motivate everybody around you.

You need to add only as many people as you can help steer the activity, just like a spider with 100 legs would be have some trouble moving around.

Moreover: the motivation should derive from you, not from the legs.

A final point: yes, the spider has one head.

But, quite often, I saw that startups with just one person at the head. And it does not work.

Why? Because, again, you do not yet where you are heading to, and if your ideas, plan, etc will survive the impact with reality.

Therefore, I always suggest at least a two-people team.

One, the initiator, communicator, motivator.

The other, complementing with down-to-earth skills.

As an example: many startup initiator that I met are masters at opening doors- but have a limited sense of reality, and not so good at actually closing deals.

And, being themselves so motivated, talk more than listen.

Therefore, also the spider should have a head that is able to look for direction, while carrying out the menial job of moving all the legs around.

And, yes, eventually, to start also producing the web (ok- stop now using the paradigm: customers are not flies!).

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1.2. Starfish: resilience

“The starfish doesn’t have a head. Its central body isn’t even in charge. In fact, the major organs are replicated throughout each and every arm. If you cut the starfish in half, you’ll be in for a surprise: the animal won’t die, and pretty soon you’ll have two starfish to deal with” (from the chapter: “The spider, the starfish, and the president of the Internet”, page 35).

Beside Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom in their “The Starfish And The Spider” (henceforth “The Starfish”), and Don Tepscott and Anthony Williams in “Wikinomics”, others proposed the completely destructured organization, with no traditional hierarchy.

But it is interesting to notice something: often, this is descriptive analysis that ignores the origins of the new organization.

A destructured organization is not built in a vacuum.

While “Wikinomics” is often cited, the slimmer but more pragmatic “The Starfish” is probably more useful as part of your “getting started” library.

For at least two reasons: language and structure.

Probably, both are linked, again, to the origins of “Wikinomics”, as the result of a research, that sometimes carries the point across so many details and cases, that the point itself is lost.

In “The Starfish”, the pragmatic approach is extended to the structure, e.g. with a table comparing the organization and chain-of-command used by the Spanish and Apache, to explain why the Spanish could not win their war with the Apache.

And, adding more interesting items, the authors explain how the Apache were beaten, by removing piece by piece their flexibility, and transforming them in more structured and vertical society.

And what is the point of “The Starfish”? That a starfish organization first has a catalyst that create the basic framework of reference, and then, only then, each part can be split and still be as the original whole.

Therefore, a starfish organization is interesting- but not necessarily what your startup will ever become.

Few exceptions come to mind: if, as a startup that I helped, you want to create new media content, probably becoming a starfish is possible.

But, in this case, you will need to move beyond the original plan that we built, and be bold.

Which means: create the first organization, spin-off a separate entity that will be delivering services supporting the creation of new media content (or research material, or anything else you aim for), and then allow the creation of copycats of the first organization, less the spin-off, that will provide services to all the copycats.

If it sounds far-fetched, look around you. Franchising adopts a similar approach, also if it tries to keep a central control, and multi-level marketing has been doing the same for a long time.

I think that there are more creative uses of the approach, beside the media industry.

As an example, consider the Internet structure itself: it is build to survive; remove one of the major “hubs”, and all the traffic can be delivered through other paths.

The secret? Define a simple way of allowing each part to communicate with the others- the basic guidelines.

The risk? That, when you start allowing to replicate, the original message could be modified by each subsequent re-creation.

The best way to ensure consistency of message is to yes, allow to create “copies” of the original organization.

But, no, none of the copies can create further copies.

Sounds far fetched? Well, look at Monsanto technology in GMO. The technology allows seeds that cannot generate further seeds.

The purpose is not just corporate greed (to force buyers to buy at every planting season), but also for environment protection, to avoid that unforeseen mutations could impact on existing non-GMO species.

How do you realize this approach? By using the normal, old fashioned, “school” approach.

The concept is simple: before allowing your starfish to be split, whoever will be in the new starfish should learn from the source how it works.

Is the school approach really needed? The only cases that I know where is not needed are those where you have a simple, straightforward product or message, and therefore you have some degree of confidence that there will not be changes, also without a central reference.

Personally, I believe that this approach is more appropriate to non-profit activities, usually cause-oriented, as the straightforward and focused task that is the cause is the only way to avoid confusion, and allow fast spreading.

Do not get confused by talks about “viral marketing” approaches.

It has nothing to do with the starfish approach.

Most marketeers talking about “viral marketing” did not bother reading some boring but useful books about what they are using as a concept, e.g. the flu virus and the history of the various instances in the XX century.

Or, at least, if they do not like reading, watch a couple of movies, like The Andromeda Strain

The concept is simple: if you create something, and spread it around without control, it mutates when it interacts.

What goes around, it is therefore not necessarily what was expected.

Therefore, a viral marketing is more useful, again, if what you are sending around (e.g. your YouTube video) has a basic message, and the purpose is more to have people talk about your organization than what is the message itself.

The larger and more complex the message, the higher the chances that the message will be modified by some prankster and re-launched as a mashup, sometimes with hilarious effects.

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1.3. Ants: self-organizing

I think that the best, shorter definition comes from Prof. Gordon website:
We investigate how individual ants, using local information, produce the coordinated
behavior of colonies. An ant colony operates without central control. Task allocation is the process that allows the colony to adjust the numbers of ants engaged in each task, in a way appropriate to the current situation. Our current work on harvester ants shows that an ant’s task decisions depend on its recent experience of brief encounters with other ants. In the course of an encounter, one ant assesses the task-specific cuticular hydrocarbons of another.

In summary: no boss, everyone knows the role needed by sharing a need.

Ants have been around longer than humans, and therefore they had time to develop their own way of communicating and organizing.

Most people see the social structure of the ants as a kind of communist society. But it is not.

If you have a complex organization, you do not want to have either of the two extremes- the centralized spider and the highly flexible but definitely uncoordinated starfish.

In human complex organizations, usually the issue is solved by a vertical hierarchy.

But, then, in the XX century we (re)discovered something called “matrix management”, an approach based on having a hierarchy based on function (e.g. within accounting), along with a cross-function management to share knowledge.

I will not summarize here all the discussions about the advantages and disadvantages of each structure- but you can read more about it by reading project management books, e.g. the PMBOK, issued by the Project Management Institute (the 4th edition was publised in December 2008).

The ants’ organization is more complex and advanced and, frankly, it is an hybrid closer, in my view, to what is keeping running Wikipedia and other OpenSource initiatives.

As I wrote before, when you start a new activity, quite often it is advisable to start as a spider, and move onto the starfish only if the approach suits the purposes of your organization.

But, instead of becoming a vertical, or matrix, pyramid, if you give to everybody in your organization a clear understanding of the purpose, and training adequate for their tasks, plus a general understanding of the tasks of the people they have to work with, you will get something closer to an ant colony.

This type of organization has two distinctive advantages: it aggregates resources where needed, not just simply where you used in the past to allocate them.

And, being task oriented, once a task or project is completed, the resources do not try “hold on the territory”.

I know that most project and business manager will not like the analogy- but the CMMI, PRINCE2, PMBOK frameworks for project management try to merge the classical hierarchical or more-or-less-balanced matrix approach with a project-oriented resource allocation.

And this is they typical “ant” approach.

What is missing? Often, the methods are used not as guidelines to use and refer to before the project starts, to identify task, roles, and the “travel plan”, but as inflexible rulebooks.

The result? I saw way too many projects whose documentation was a clear sign of project managers struggling to justify ex-post what they did, by trying to make it fit inside the framework.

Or, even worse, project managers getting lost in a volley of memos and meetings.

As you probably now understand, I think that the “ant colony” approach has an interesting potential, but within a project team- not as an organization.

The effort is on the project or activity manager, who has to educate his/her team before starting to spread tasks around.

Also, the project or activity manager has to learn to act as a “safety net” to the team, to allow redirecting efforts- but has to delegate.

If you feel uneasy with the “ant colony” approach, were team members act as a collective alert and monitoring system, instead of just executing micro-tasks, then probably all the projet management methodologies that I referred to are probably to be re-inforced with a more classical “spider” approach.

But beware: it is true that the “ant colony” approach, if poorly prepared, could generate mistakes and re-run of activities.

But adopting a “spider” approach to manage a project or activity must generate an administrative overhead (otherwise, it will spin out of control).

How do you recognized a spider project that forgot to build the administrative tasks? Because, when something happens, suddenly people start writing each other memos, and organizing meetings.

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2. Applying the lessons to your organization

Now, if you are a startup, I think that you will think: a) who cares about spiders, starfishes, ants? b) why does it apply to me?

To summarize the previous sections: I would create a startup as a spider, with a clear identified purpose, and then evolve it into an ant colony, while allow some activities to be created as starfishes, as you need more than one team to tackle with some issues, and come back with solutions.

In the end, in a startup, the team is as strong as the original head (not necessarily just one person), and as cohesive as the members of the original team.

The main mistakes many startups do is not thinking about the future: yes, somebody would like to stay in the company forever.

But others are there for the excitement of the heroic phase, or for the thrill of creating something- but will be unable to grow with the company, or to accept the steady state of affairs of a normal, operating company.

If you identify roles and motivation before you start, you will be one step further toward building a sustainable company (see here for some suggestions on how to present your new enterprise to potential investors)

All the information in this posting is derived by experience (see here for my experience), not just book reading or fence-sitting.

Therefore, as anything based on experience, as to be considered based on a finite number of practical activities.

Before applying any lesson, study. read. inform yourself. make up your mind. and remember that, as in every issue of this kind, you are the ones making the decisions.

I hope that I enclosed enough links (see also the bibliography at the bottom) to allow you start your own research.

And let me know if you learn any new lessons that you would like to share

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3. Bibliography

And now, the book references.

Beside the websites listed in each section of this short article, here are three suggested readings.

The Starfish and the Spider
The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations

A Theory of Justice: building a company means building a corporate culture. before your first meeting with the lawyer to define the contracts with your partners, read this book.
A Theory of Justice: Original Edition

Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything

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