Why I can’t agree with Groucho Marx


Didier Marlier

February 14, 2010

From Disruption to Engagement

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Still in “The starfish and the spider: the unstoppable power of leaderless organizations”[1], 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[2] 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

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

[2] With special thanks to Roland Kupers and Stephen Okunowo who explained this to me in a late dinner in Amsterdam Bo Cinq Restaurant…


  1. doug


    This is not a direct comment on your latest posting but rather a general reference to your series.

    The video “Did you know?” brings up many interesting points but two have really stuck with me. 1) Most jobs in top demand did not exist 4 years ago. (This is also a point you picked up on too). From my personal observation, this is true, particularly in Marketing where the new economy has completely shattered the advertising industry structures and ways of doing business. For sure, people still read ads. But they are doing it differently and certainly using the internet to get information in far more interesting ways than they used to. Plus, the world on-line lets you track and trace results on a much broader/deeper basis than ever before, so why invest money in things you can’t measure like print ads and billboards?
    2) Even more interesting to me is the notion that companies (or whatever you want to call an assembly of people) are forming and breaking-up far more frequently than before. It would be interesting to do a relative analysis of our own MBA class. How many companies have we worked for? In how many industries and how many countries? I think we would be shocked by the number. I can imagine that our average classmate has worked in more than 5 companies / 5 industries / 5 countries. I know I have. So the question becomes, how do you form and break-up organizations on a continuous basis? If we are really averaging less than 10 years for a company to go from cradle to grave, then we need to organize and lead organizations that are meant to last less than a decade. How do you recruit? How do you form teams and a culture? How do you get buy-in? How do you evolve the organization and people to the next level? It is clear that we can’t afford to have high performing individuals and teams sitting on the sidelines waiting a year or more for the next opportunity to come around before and after an organization forms and implodes. (Please don’t mention head-hunters, these people are hopelessly stuck in the past and can’t contribute a thing towards working on a solution to bridge the gap between organizational implosion and formation.) So this is the real question. How do we form bunches of Apaches to ride around from mission to mission / market to market and are able to keep going and re-inventing themselves? Who leads it? Why lead it?

  2. Didier Marlier

    Doug, thank you very much for insightful remarks. Gerd Leonhard (www.mediafuturist.com) with whom I now regularly reflect on the future of the Open Economy, couldn’t agree more with the changes you describe re: Marketing and advertising. What the “experts” of whom you are seem to agree is that intrusive, distruptive advertising is counterproductive and on its way out. To survive, advertising will have to bring true value to be tolerated…
    On the second poit, I find it spot on; It i a part of all the reflection we, as leaders, need to have about the way we engage our people. The traditional ways (career path, remuneration) are ess effective. It is not unusual now to see some specialists workig from home or execs refusing to relocate into HQ hometown and operate from their european capital. What you describe through your questions Doug, reflect this transition from “Built to last organizations” to “inspired to strive organisms”. As I will describe into upcomig posts, three traits define such “intelligent enterprises”: A strong and shared sense of Purpose, a permanent, purpose related feedback loop and a productive ground of relationships. Tak you for your geat input! Didier

  3. Gaulia

    Hi Didier and Doug – I ´ve already read the comments below the first post. I would like to believe more in “Built to last organizations” (Jim Collins ?) – those ones who know how to reinvent themsleves as DuPont for example, always looking ahead for the next evolution step or nowadays companies like Chevron or BP (in the energy field not any more in the gas & oil business only).

    But the most important point is MEANING. Here in Brazil were are in the end of Carnival and many schools of samba are organizations that frequently have to show creative and outstanding parades every year. And only one will be the champion. So the people that work the hole year in these schools of samba (hundreds of colaborative workers) BELIEVE in the purpose – because they participate in the final result. 100% engagement.

    Is this possible in public or private companies?

  4. Didier Marlier

    GREAT post nd thank you Gaulia. I guess we would all prefer to see “built to last” companies. The fact is that change is speeding up and, if companies do not carefully 1) prepare for the future, 2) design more flexible, flat, organic and intelligent organizations and 3) if leadership doesn’t migrate from intellect only to behavioural and emotional (what you beautyfully describe as the MEANING), then they won’t last.
    Thanks as well for the beautyfull (and sustainable) exmple of the samba schools… Very relevant, nothing gets done without Passion… And thank you for sharig this at the height of Carnival times!!! “E tudo se acabar na quarta feira…” Abraços


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