Why The Tea Party Is Like A Starfish, Not A Spider What do Wikipedia and Craigslist have in common with the Tea Party movement? They succeed by being decentralized, says Rod Beckstrom, co-author of the management book The Starfish and the Spider.
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Why The Tea Party Is Like A Starfish, Not A Spider

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Why The Tea Party Is Like A Starfish, Not A Spider

Why The Tea Party Is Like A Starfish, Not A Spider

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Many Tea Party activists are drawing inspiration from an unlikely creature. They're telling each other to be more like a starfish and less like a spider. The strengths and weaknesses of those creatures are compared in a business book. Rod Beckstrom is co-author of the "The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations."

INSKEEP: How did you first find out that people in the Tea Party movement were recommending your book?

Mr. ROD BECKSTROM (Co-author, "The Starfish and the Spider") Yeah, you know, we started to see it on Twitter, started to see blog pieces online and people mentioned it to me. And it was about a year ago. I mean, early on when the movement started getting going, I think, some of the members were first reading the book.

INSKEEP: You weren't a Tea Party activist yourself?

Mr. BECKSTROM: No, I was not.

INSKEEP: So what did you think when you first heard this?

Mr. BECKSTROM: It made sense. I mean, the book is really a guidebook for people to help organize decentralized movements and organizations of any type.

INSKEEP: When you say the starfish and the spider, which is what you say in the title, what do you mean?

Mr. BECKSTROM: Well, what we mean is if we look at these two creatures, superficially they look very similar. They have a lot of arms or legs. But if we dissect them we see that they're perfectly dissimilar. And in looking at their internal physiology, we get a new model for understanding organizations.

If we cut off the leg of an adult spider, we just get a crippled seven-legged spider. But if we cut off the head of the spider it dies, because it's a centralized organism. Now, that's how we've looked at organizations in the West for the last several hundred years, top-down, spider-like there's a CEO, or there's someone in control.

But the world is seeing a profusion of new organizations that are a lot more like a starfish. The starfish has between four and 50 arms. If you cut off one arm of a starfish it can regenerate.

In some species of starfish, like the blue linkia, if you cut off all five arms, you get five new starfish. That's possible because the starfish is a completely decentralized organism.

INSKEEP: Decentralized meaning there's not a brain in there someplace?

Mr. BECKSTROM: It has intelligence, but that the intelligence is distributed through each of the arms. When those communicate with each other, they're even more intelligent as a group. But each arm has its own intelligence in it.

INSKEEP: So who are some human organizations that you would compare to the starfish?

Mr. BECKSTROM: In the book we talk about the Apache Indians, a tribe that was incredibly decentralized. And because of how decentralized they were, they were able to withstand the centralized Spanish opponents for literally hundreds of years. So the Apaches. Or we talk about the Craigslist community online, being highly decentralized and driven by each community individually.

INSKEEP: So in what way, if at all, does the Tea Party movement fit this model?

Mr. BECKSTROM: The Tea Party movement fits the model because there's no one in charge, no individual. If you take one unit out, the whole still continues. It is a movement. It has cohesion. The cohesion is around the very term Tea Party. And the cohesion is held through the values and it is values that hold large, decentralized networks together. And in this case it's the anti-tax values, it's the anti big government set of core values that are held by the different groups.

INSKEEP: I wonder if I can just test that notion for a moment. That does sound very exciting if you're a member of a movement like that. And it must be very exciting for members of the Tea Party movement to hold up your book and say this is what we are.

But are you convinced, looking from the outside, that this is entirely a genuine movement and not one that's been generated the way that opposition movements have been sort of generated in the past by people with money and the connections to do it?

Mr. BECKSTROM: I think there's way too much energy behind this. In a sociological sense, I think the impetus was clearly concerns about the economic meltdown and, you know, very aggressive national programs creating concerns in some people.

So, are there some parties that may have come in and funded it and helped to shape it or steer it? Absolutely. Is that what gave rise to it? No.

INSKEEP: Is hard to sustain a movement like this? And if so, why?

Mr. BECKSTROM: You know, one of the things that happens, because there's no centralized control and precise definition of what it is or what its not, there can be a lot of fighting and tearing over time at what does it represent.

Example would be, I went on the Web to research, you know, what are the Tea Party principles. Well, there are no centralized principles. And then there's this - different chapters and groups and movements that have published their view. As that happens, you're going to see people and parties trying to come in and steer that power or energy into an institution of their liking. That itself creates a process of friction that could lead to diminishment of camaraderie and shared spirit.

INSKEEP: Oh. I and the more specific that a movement gets about what it wants and who it wants to support, the more likely it is that some people just aren't going to agree with the direction the movement's going.

Mr. BECKSTROM: Absolutely. You know, when it starts off with these high-level goals that, really, almost everyone can agree with, and then it starts, you know, narrowing down things such as, you know, more fiscal responsibility, personal responsibility, rule of law. But the more you get down into the details, then you start getting into fighting lines or debate lines.

And so that's going to be very interesting to watch this, to see how it develops. And I don't think this movement's going away for a while. It'll be with us for quite some number of years.

INSKEEP: That's Rod Beckstrom, co-author of "The Starfish and the Spider." His theory of the starfish gets some people thinking about business, others thinking of sociology and still others, as we've heard, about politics.

It gets us thinking about actual starfish. So we went to visit some.

(Soundbite of children chattering)

INSKEEP: You can find them at the Invertebrate House of the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

Mr. MICHAEL MILLER (Zookeeper, National Zoo, D.C.): Up there, in the upper right corner, we have what are called the purple sea stars, which is kind of odd because they're not actually purple. They're different, more of a beige color.

INSKEEP: That's zookeeper Michael Miller.

Mr. MILLER: Starfish have some pretty some pretty remarkable things about them.

INSKEEP: For one thing, they don't have muscles. Instead, they use a hydraulic system to move around. So let's check that basic statement made by author Rod Beckstrom.

Mr. BECKSTROM: If you cut off one arm of a starfish, it can regenerate.

INSKEEP: Zookeeper Michael Miller says that is true, mostly. Most starfish require a part of the central body to remain attached to that arm in order to regenerate.

Turns out, there are some sea creatures, though, that are even better at survival.

Mr. MILLER: An animal that has, you know, really, really impressive regenerative technique is a sponge, really. You can take a sponge and literally shove it through a sieve and individually separate each and every cell, and each of those will cluster back together and form new little sponges altogether.

INSKEEP: Okay. Okay. Okay. So now let's examine that other creature that Rod Beckstrom mentioned: The spider.

Mr. BECKSTROM: But if we cut off the head of the spider, it dies.

INSKEEP: It turns out that spiders don't technically have heads.

Mr. MILLER: It has two major body segments. It has an abdomen and what we call a cephalothorax, which is kind of a fusion of the head and the thorax region. So they don't have a distinct, separate head, per se.

INSKEEP: That may point to some of the only real flaws in Rod Beckstrom's theory of the spider and starfish.

Beckstrom wants you to consider whether your organization should be more like one or the other. As it turns out, though, neither creature has a backbone or much of a brain.

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