November 25, 2006
I recently finished reading the “The Starfish and The Spider”, a business book bestseller which explains the benefits of distributed organizations and I was surprised by the many parallels to leadership and agile methods. The unusual title illustrates a key difference between networked organizations and traditional organizations. While they may look similar, a spider has centralized systems and if you cut it in half it will die; cut a starfish in half and it will not die, but instead re-grow into two separate starfish (apparently). Without a single head, distributed (starfish) organizations are very resilient and hard to compete against.
Examples of networked entities include Alcoholics Anonymous where each chapter is independent and new chapters can be started anywhere, and peer-to-peer file sharing programs such as eMule that are open source, freely distributed and employ no central registry.
The Agile Angle
A key advantage to networked structures is that they are extremely resilient to breaks in communication channels. A local AA Chapter does not have to rely on instructions from a central body in order to operate. It is empowered to help alcoholics as it sees fit following the vision of the original AA 12 Step Program. Having this freedom to help others as best you can, AA circle members are effective at solving problems where “experts” often fail.
Likewise agile teams are encouraged to organize work as they see fit within the remit of delivering the features selected for that iteration. Being empowered to undertake their own local planning they are more committed to achieving success.
"Being empowered to undertake their own local planning they are more committed to achieving success..."
If comparing your development team to a collection of alcoholics is unlikely to viewed positively, try the Wikipedia example. Wikipedia is a classic network entity, populated be volunteers contributing on work they are passionate about. While there have been well publicized instances of Wikipedia errors and vandalism, given the sheer volume of articles and contributors, the percentages are actually extremely small and Wikipedia is a great example of what a distributed network can build.
The best teams do not rely on instructions being handed down from some expert, but instead create an environment where discovery/development can occur and collaboration is encouraged. Command-and-control project management is like a spider organization, it relies on a central communications structure and does not exploit the full potential of its teams.
As the Japanese proverb says “No one is as smart as all of us” and organizations who tap into the collective knowledge of their workforce to solve problems (like the Toyota Production System) achieve benefits over traditional, hierarchical organizations. Semco the Brazilian engineering firm that set the bar for agile organizations and is described in “The Seven Day Weekend”; gives autonomy to its staff for making most business decisions, including opening and closing new lines of business.
So, when building effective teams consider some starfish strategies, make the plan fault-tolerant by encouraging the team members to collectively create a work plan they own. Remove yourself from the critical path of everyday decision making by distributing decision making to the team. [Then step aside and see what emerges, be it Atlantis or a sea-monster!]