Starfish vs Spider

Starfish vs Spider

Who would win?

VERSUS that’s not really what this post is about. A couple of weeks ago I did a review on the book, “Leading Across Cultures.” This is an insight that comes from that book.

The author is talking about global organisations and particularly those who have started off in a grass-roots-way in one country, and then spread.What happens to these organisations in the new cultures they enter? How do they maintain the same goals, company culture, values etc when faced with a completely different societal structure?

First off, as I was reading this, I had quite a number of light-bulb moments going off in my head. The organisation I currently work for is exactly in this situation. Beginning in Australia, they have now spread globally. It was, in some ways, unintentional. But now they are wrestling with these exact issues.

So back to the starfish and the spider….the author uses them to describe two options that organisations usually face.

With a spider, it has one body containing all its vital organs that then pump the energy to the legs etc. In these types of organisations, the centre is very strong. All decisions and goals are set at a central, coordinating office. Finances are probably all sent to the one place, to then be distributed. The placement of other resources, like workers etc, would also be a central decision.

Obviously, the positives in this model is that it is very easy to keep the culture and values of the organisation. The down side? One strong blow to the body and the whole spider is killed. In reality, this could mean a key leader leaving, a natural disaster that affects the location of the main office, a recession in that country…any number of things.

The starfish, on the other hand, replicates all its vital organs in each limb. This avoids the pitfalls of the spider: each country can adapt the organisations’ goals, resources etc to their specific cultural situation. If one limb dies, the others can still continue to thrive.

The downside of this model is that there is less control in maintaining the company’s values, in where finances and people are distributed and what the exact goals for each office are.

So like all dichotomies, the author suggests that something in-between the two models would be ideal. Thus, I give you…THE SPIDER-FISH….

Just kidding. Of course all metaphors have their limits. But I could definitely relate both models to the organisation I am currently in at different parts in their history. They were at first a spider, with the centre in Australia – the origin of the organisation. But in recent years it has become more of a starfish, with each country taking responsibility for their goals, resources etc. At this point in time, there is now a real emphasis to understand how this works, because it has become clear that some of the values and key parts of the organisation could go missing. I for one, do not know the answer, or where the middle ground is. But I guarantee that it will take collaboration from all parts – and that will require cross-cultural awareness and understanding. I’m looking forward to what these collaborative bridges could produce.

How about you? Can you relate these examples to global organisations you know? How have they overcome the challenges that arise?


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