alan hirsch recommended the starfish and the spider: the unstoppable power of leaderless organisations to me. it is a wonderful book!
if you cut off a spider's head it dies, if you cut off a starfish's leg it grows a new one and both parts then become starfish. traditional top down organisations are like spiders but particularly with the advent of the internet starfish organisations are all around. a classic example of a starfish would be AA alcoholics anonymous - driven by a simple ideology/vision of addicts helping one another and the 12 step programme, AA groups meet all over the world and yet there is very little centre, very little control other than the core vision. if you become a member you are a leader. anyone can start a group.
the book is full of examples and great stories often setting up contrasts - for example between the big record labels and the likes of napster, emule, limewire and other peer to peer software sharing groups. the introduction and the first chapter are on the web site.
as always when i read a book like this i couldn't help thinking about the church and mission. the resonances are clear. the church can be an amazing decentralised network. in times of persecution where it has had to go underground this has happened in astonishing ways. and yet in so many places it is also far more centralised than is healthy in my view. i kept thinking about CMS as well - i'll be passing the book round i think... towards the end of the book there is a chapter on hybrids - i.e. organisations that have a centralised structure but capitalise on the vest of decentralised networks as well - ebay is the prime example.
one of things i found most interesting personally was the role of leadership in decentralised systems. it is completely different. the subtitle is a bit of a misnomer as in many cases there is some kind of leadership even if it becomes invisible or is distributed after a while. one of the key 5 legs of starfish organisations according to the authors is a catalyst. a catalyst is the kind of person who gets things going and then fades into the background ceding control to members. as there is often no hierarchy and no headquarters the best a person can do to influence people is to lead by example. the catalyst is contrasted with a CEO. have a look at these contrasts...
CEO | catalyst
boss | peer
command and control | trust
rational | emotionally intelligent
powerful | inspirational
directive | collaborative
in the spotlight | behind the scenes
order | ambiguity
organising | connecting
it's not that one is good and one is bad - but they are very different animals. i confess i saw a lot of my instincts described in the catalyst (i think to a degree many of these instincts describe more postmodern sensibilites about leadership anyway).
this type of leadership isn't ideal for all situations. catalysts are bound to rock the boat. they are much better at being agents of change than guardians of tradition. catalysts do well in situations that call for radical change and creative thinking. they bring innovation but they are also likely to create a certain amount of chaos and ambiguity. put them in a structured environment and they might suffocate. let them dream and they'll thrive.
the cms team i am helping catalyse will doubtless be reading and reflecting on what the implications might be for how we go about encouraging mission. one of the warnings i picked up thinking about emerging church was about resources. in a chapter on how to take on decentralised organisations there is a suggestion that movements have been ruined when someone comes along with resources. the apache (see first chapter above) are used to talk about a decentralised system. the thing that ruined them seems to have been giving them cattle!
if you really want to centralise an organisation hand property rights to the catlyst and tell him to distribute resources as he sees fit. with power over property rights the catalyst turns into CEO and circles become competitive.