Starfish, Spiders, Cows, Geronimo the Apache and Entrepreneurial Start ups

I Heard Rod Beckstrom speak in Dubai a couple of years ago. He tells a great story about a starfish and a spider.

If you come accross a spider and cut off one of its legs, what do you have? A dead leg and a 7-legged spider. If you cut off the spider’s head, what do you have? A dead spider.

If you come across a starfish and cut off one of its legs, what do you have? Two starfish. If you cut off the starfish’s head, what do you have? Five starfish. Each part of a starfish has the capacity to re-grow the rest.

What does a starfish and a spider have to do with Geronimo and Al Qaeda?

500 years ago, in the 1500s, the Spanish conquistadores reached Latin America. The Spanish at that time had the most centrally controlled feudal kingdom in history. When they reached the Incas – what did they do? They said “take me to your leader”, shot and killed the emperor and said “I am your new emperor”. Incas conquered in less than 5 years. Aztecs in less than 5. Mayans in less than 5. The Spanish had placed themselves as the supreme leaders of century old empires in less than a decade. They just replaced one centrally controlled power structure with another.

Some years later, the Spanish conquistadores reached Baja California and came across the Apache tribe. They said “take me to your leader” – but the Apache had no leader. The Apache warriors were allowed to follow whoever they wanted whenever they wanted. If another tribe’s leader seemed like a better person to follow, an Apache warrior just picked up his stuff and followed the new tribe… or set up his own tribe. The Spanish heard about a warrior called Geronimo who had many followers. They chased him and chased him and eventually captured Geronimo. The warriors just split into groups with new leaders. Each time the Spanish captured a new “supreme leader” they found that there were 20 new warriors that became leaders of warriors across the Apache nation. 200 years went by and the Apache were still unconquered.

The Apache are comparable to the internet, to entrepreneurial start-ups, to Al Qaeda. Big company management and at least the previous US President have a tendency to “target the leader” – thinking that if we squash the leader, the rest of the organisation will just disappear.

A starfish is a metaphor for an empowered, decentralised organisation and spider is a metaphor for a centrally controlled, disempowered organisation. Is your company like a starfish or is it like a spider? Are you competing with starfish or spiders?

The Apache did eventually get “conquered” – but by a well intentioned act of the nascent United States. In order to be good to the original peoples, the US government gave a gift of a cow to every Native Indian. In order to administer the delivery of millions of cows, there needed to be some Apache who controlled the delivery of cows – this immediately established a formal power structure and political system in the Apache nation. The gift of a cow converted every Apache from a nomadic traveller into people who needed to settle down with their cows. It was an act of contrition and intentional kindness that led to the Apache nation becoming politically dependant on the US government.

What is the equivalent of a cow to an Al Qaeda member? What is the equivalent of a cow to a group of entrepreneurial start-ups? Are there some areas where the more we push, the more resistance we encounter – and then when we stop pushing we find that we get what we always wanted?

Author: Conor Neill

Hi, I’m Conor Neill, an Entrepreneur and Teacher at IESE Business School. I speak about Moving People to Action.

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