“The starfish and the spider or the urge to design intelligent organizations”


Didier Marlier

February 06, 2010

From Disruption to Engagement

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In their book, Brafman and Beckstrom[1] compare the obedient, centrally organized and hierarchical Aztecs and Mayas to the rebellious, purpose led and decentralized Apache tribes, in their capacity to deal with totally new and unexpected “competition” coming out of nowhere (to the Spanish readers, I don’t mean that Spain is “nowhere”;). Whereas the first were rapidly defeated by the conquistadores, the later never were and resisted to “white men” for more than three hundred years. The first believed into leader dependent organizations, the others in intelligence led tribes.

Today, conquistadores also come out of unexpected places, they were nowhere on our competitive radar or belonged to sectors that were traditionally not competing with ours (therefore the word attributed to Nokia’s CEO, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo of “Convergent Economy”). Our businesses are now requested to choose between continuing to go “the Maya/Aztec path” or to have the courage to explore the “Apache Strategy”. One of our biggest challenges is the “Corporate technology in the hands of citizens” as Jonathan MacDonald[2] calls it, meaning that simple inventors have at their disposal technological means once only available to “Deep Pockets organizations”.

On top of this, Internet and the Open Source movement provide us with the unique challenge to design “Intelligent Organizations”. They have radically shifted one of the oldest underlying assumptions of business: the scarcity of information. When information was rare and issued through very few “controlled” channels, guessing faster and better than your competitors was vital. However, some points raised in the provocative clip “Did you know?” caught my interest (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5puwLp6myXw):

  • The top 10 in-demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004. Consequence: we currently should be preparing students for jobs and technologies which… don’t exist yet
  • There were 31 billion searches (!!!) on Google every month in 2008, up from 2.7 billion in 2006. How and where could we find the answers before?
  • It is estimated that one week’s worth of the New-York Times contains more information than a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the XIIXth century
  • The amount of new technical information is doubling every year, meaning that for students engaged in a four years technical curriculum, half of what they learned in their first year of studies will be outdated by their third year of study

Skeptics will say this is mere exaggeration, but this is challenging conventional wisdom about the near future. Even if just some of this turned out to be correct, guessing the future wouldn’t be the name of the game anymore but preparing our organizations and people for whatever kind of future would! Preparing ourselves for the future will mean a profound change in the way we “strategize” and enable our organizations to do so.

So why not start creating truly “intelligent organizations” where all employees would be aware of the company’s strategic intent and would be given the time to understand it at their level and internalize what it means? Such employees would stop leaving their brains at home on Monday to claim it back on Friday night. They would feel truly part of the body that impacts the course of their organization.

This is the type of discussions I recently had, not with a bunch of weird folks working for a wild software firm but with very responsible, not to say otherwise conservative leaders in three large multinationals from the chemical sector!

So what does “Creating an intelligent organization” mean?

  1. Co-creating clarity, meaning and ownership of the strategic intent at all levels of the company will ensure that people think, explore, listen and are interested by the company’s future. At barbecues, during hockey or football games, in informal conversations with colleagues, friends, family or foreigners, they will constantly weigh the impact of what they hear and learn on the company’s strategy.
  2. It will not be sufficient to develop our people in understanding the business they are in (some years ago we started to do that by working with several “business artists” able to draw allegories of companies business models which were then explained through engagement workshops by the executives), it will also be fundamental to ensure that the pyramidal, hierarchical (“seniority=superiority”) and procedure driven organizations be transformed into far more organic ensembles (we will touch this in the next post).
  3. Leadership will have to evolve drastically as well. Looking back, I feel bad and guilty for sometimes having run wonderful, forward thinking, state of the art engagement processes but failed to recognize that, should the leadership style of leaders not evolve from directive micro-management, distant and protective and punishing of mistakes, the whole effort would amount to short term morale raising edutainment but not much more. We, leaders must adapt our style to the new intelligent organizations they wish to design and that, as we know is probably our biggest personal challenge…

Luckily at home in Villars next week where a series of conference calls should not prevent me from a bit of powder snow skiing… Have a great week all Didier

[1] O. Brafman & R. Beckstrom (2006) The Starfish and the Spider (Penguin Books)



  1. Alexandre Pauperio

    Very interesting view, Didier.
    The new intelligent organization is a tendency in our crisis time. The change is a natural condition.
    Leaders need to be smart to make de things easiers. It’s our mission. It’s not possible? There are “dumbie organizations” around the world…

  2. Marvin Faure

    I suspect many of us have had the experience of running “wonderful, state-of-the-art engagement processes” that have ultimately failed to create the hoped-for changes, because the leaders involved have proved unwilling or unable to change their leadership style. This is deeply frustrating for everybody and sometimes even counter-productive.
    The necessary leadership adaptation is more than a personal challenge. It is a huge, systemic, organisational challenge. I’m not sure we even know what it means yet, still less how to get there. The current leadership paradigm is so deeply embedded in most organisations, and the existing hierarchy sees the changes as so threatening, that the obstacles to change (in large organisations) are enormous.
    My current thinking is that the best chance of success is through a slow cascade, in which each level of leadership, starting at the very top, takes the time to work out what is needed, how to do it from the starting point of their organisational culture, and persevere (with plenty of objective feedback) until they “really get it”. Leadership by example will be the key. There is no way this is going to work with the usual speech “do as I say, not as I do”… 😉
    Looking forward to more exchange on this subject. This could truly be THE management issue of the coming decade.

  3. Ivo Knottnerus

    Hi Didier,

    Thanks for this interesting and mind provoking blog!

    Very interesting story and video as well. It makes you wonder isn’t it? I mean do you think we could ever prepare ourselves or the organizations we work in for the immense speed of change. If things continue to change as fast or even faster as they have been doing like it is shown in the video, it makes me wonder if a companies’ strategy isn’t already outdated by the time its employees have grasped it…

    Perhaps I am playing a bit the devil’s advocate here, however really it makes me wonder how we (as leaders) will do this. I guess if we are surprised by the message from the video – by the way, I am a firm believer in the content of that video – it actually should function as a wake up call. How can we ever prepare our organizations, or let alone follow the markets, let people grasp our strategies etc.?

    My idea is that we should perhaps go back to the ultimate form of decentralized organizations, so that on a super micro level, organizations can adept their strategy to the local pace of change and local needs. Global strategies or country strategies will not work anymore. We need adaptable micro cells, with micro cell strategies, and extremely flexible adaptable execution. What do you think?

    Have a great week on the slopes (and some work in between of course…)


  4. Didier Marlier

    Thank you Alex, Ivo and Marvin for commenting,
    To Alex: Umair calls these organizations “Zombie” which are part of the Zombeconomy… (http://blogs.hbr.org/haque/). Thanks
    To Ivo: Yes, correct, things move faster by the week. And as you suggest, since strategy is already partially outdated when it reaches everyone in the organization, this is precisely why we need to educate and develop them to think “intelligently” for themselves. This is exactly what elite troops in any army are taught to do: no plan survive the shock of reality, you need to thinki it through on the terrain. This reinforces the case and necessity for “intelligent organizations”. Leaders in such “organismations” still have the duty to think further and strategically but rather than driving from the front, they will direct from the back and seek to understand and coordinate the effort and unleashed energy from their people… I totally support your vision of adaptable micro cells, this is exactly how one of the most impressive organismation (organic organisation), the human body, functions today… Thanks
    To Marvin: Reassuring to see I am not the only one 😉 Indeed, I agree that our capacity to challenge our mental models about organization and leadership has become critical! Thanks…

    Have a great week all

  5. Juan M. Gallego

    Hi Didier,

    As usual, very interesting article to read and to contemplate on.

    I also agree with many comments that have been mentioned above. I am a strong believer in cognitive behavioral theory. The first step that one should implement in this changing situations is to come out with the issue, agree on the behaviors that needs to be changed and following Beck´s Cognitive theory technique, face the irrational thoughts by introducing the right way to deal with those and the right behavior. Basically, reconditioned your team to match the new challenges.

    Just as when you go hiking or backpacking, you should match your pace to the slowest hiker. The hike itself will unfortunately weed out those that are not ready for that type of challenge, but 80-90% of the group should be able to follow through and by the end of the trip, would be much stronger. And in order to have a successful hike, you must have someone that knows how to read a map and a compass. If you don´t have the right leader for the new hike, the group should be able to choose another one that is more effective and that will get us there successfully.


    Juan Mª


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