Still in “The starfish and the spider: the unstoppable power of leaderless organizations”, Brafman and Beckstrom report the story of Dave Garrison, CEO of Netcom (one of the first Internet Service Provider firm) in 1995 who was on his way to a road show to get financial backing from international investors. When he reached Paris, he was taken totally off-guard by the question of a French banker: “Prior to deciding on investing, we need to know who is the President Directeur General (CEO) of Internet!”… Today, none of these otherwise smart people would ever ask this question… It was only 15 years ago and it seems obvious today that Internet is an “intelligent organization”, which is revolutionizing the world’s economy, without following the pyramidal model.
Want an older example? The Prussian army had clear leaders and was, to many respects, functioning on the traditional hierarchical model. However, being acutely aware that during the battle, an obedient (as opposed to self disciplined) and procedure driven army (as opposed to purpose driven) would lead to disaster, Prussian high ranking officers were taught three golden rules:
- “Do not give orders for action but for outcome”: in other terms, do not tell people what to do but clearly share the purpose and your expectations. Do not micro-manage; let your people get on with the work. They will find the right solutions on the battlefield.
- “Prior to the action, ask your people to report order”: Co-create clarity on the purpose and meaning of the order, ensure soldiers “own it” prior to let them jump into action.
- “Disobey orders when they are senseless”: how many amongst us would advise it to their people? This is another direct call to creating “Intelligent Organizations”: our people must think for themselves, creatively and as entrepreneurs instead of passively obeying orders.
Three of my partners have served as officers in the elite troops of their country. In their very exceptional moments of sharing anything on this extraordinary experience, they explain that in commando teams, people are trained to make decisions three levels higher than their current grade. When an unexpected and threatening event happens, it is expected for the lower ranks to “raise the level of their game” and lead the immediate response to the crisis so as to let the higher rank officers think of the more strategic next move. I am afraid this contradicts Groucho Marx own experience of the army (and I admit to have also changed my mind on this…): “Army intelligence is a contradiction in terms!”
Sports also provide us with examples of visionary leaders trying to design “Intelligent Organizations”. French living legend, coach Aimé Jacquet, when he led France to the title of World Champions of football in 1998, took a few counterintuitive stands: At the height of his unpopularity (Jacquet was victim of a campaign of a rare violence and disrespect by the French press, that is before winning the Cup of course), he decided to cut Eric Cantona from the squad. Cantona, had just been elected (the first time ever for a French footballer) best player in the English championship and was France’s iconic player. The reason Jacquet gave was that Cantona’s presence on the field made the whole team dependent of him. Any coach would see that and order his players to isolate Cantona so that the French squad would be crippled. Jacquet wanted an intelligent team instead of one depending on a sole player. He was known for demanding the adhesion of his players to two simple rules: “Be ready and willing to take a personal risk, for the benefit of the team at any time and if you are not busy just doing it, at least make sure to be supporting someone else who is!”… Aimé Jacquet had built a truly daring, entrepreneurial and fear liberated team, since as he used to say, “When they are on the pitch there isn’t much more I can do to influence”.
I strongly believe that companies who will strive in the “Open Network Economy” will be the ones capable of reinventing themselves, on a model closer to those unconventional “special forces” than to the conventional armies…
In reply to a private mail from one of you: Why was the book called Starfish and Spider? Brafman and Beckstrom use the metaphor of the spider, which becomes totally disabled once its head is hit and of the starfish which is, in fact a neural network, without central brain: When one cuts a starfish in two, the two separate parts renew themselves and continue living…
Between Paris and Switzerland this week, severely crippled by the crash of my laptop. At least it forced me to test a Mac and choose out of experience, not to buy one!
Have a great week all, Didier
 O. Brafman & R. Beckstrom (2006) The Starfish and the Spider (Penguin Books)
 With special thanks to Roland Kupers and Stephen Okunowo who explained this to me in a late dinner in Amsterdam Bo Cinq Restaurant…