Starfish? Spiders? More Like Birds.

In the circles I move in, there’s been a lot of discussion lately about Starfish and Spiders; reference to the 2006 book by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom.

The idea behind the book, which I have not read (why should I have to fund these guys just to understand their point), is that top-down command and control style organizations resemble a spider, and that if the head of the spider is removed, the organization dies.

A starfish organization, in contrast, can survive damage, and in fact after one of its arms is severed can not only repair the arm, but the severed arm can re-grow a new body. Nice enough analogy, and good for getting the point across to thick-skulled CEO’s still mourning the apparent loss of their cheese.

However, I find the analogy a bit weak; the “starfish” concept doesn’t actually explain a lot of the behavioral properties that underlie “starfish” organizations. Folks in the coworking community rightly believe that it is a starfish-style movement: leaderless and self-healing.

Flocking behavior (as seen with birds and insects) is a more instructive analogy to me. On first glance, many naïvely assume that flocks follow a leader. Not true. Individual members of a flock obey just three simple rules, and this is all that’s required to produce complex flocking behavior:

  • Separation: Steer to avoid crowding local flockmates
  • Alignment: Steer towards the average heading of local flockmates
  • Cohesion: Steer to move towards the average position of local flockmates

Quoting from Wikipedia (so it must be true), “In flocking simulations, there is no central control; each bird behaves autonomously. In other words, each bird has to decide for itself which flocks to consider as its environment. Usually environment is defined as a circle (2D) or sphere (3D) with a certain radius (representing reach). A basic implementation of a flocking algorithm has complexity O(n2) – each bird searches through all other birds to find those who falls into his environment.

The implementation of coworking is flock-like. The spread of coworking is starfishy.

The reason why so many people have trouble defining coworking is because it defies centralized control, or the notion of a flock leader.  The reason why people say, “the only way to understand coworking is to do it,” is because it is fundamentally a flocking behavior which relies on individual execution of the flocking algorithm rules.

Flocking also explains why so many coworking environments end up selecting for the right people, with no defined rules or central control; each bird chooses whether the environment is right for her. The flock self selects.

So, if you’re having trouble explaining why your local coworking group has anything to do with starfish, maybe it’s time to start talking about your flock instead.

Coworking Begins in Baltimore

In September, I had the opportunity to hang out with Alex Hillman in Vienna, Austria at the wedding of our mutual friends Amy Hoy and Thomas Fuchs, and while Alex and I had peripherally known of each other, we hadn’t had a chance to actually meet and talk.  It turned out we were both staying at the same hostel, and as a result we had a chance to talk about a bunch of stuff from projects to Alex’s pioneering work in developing coworking at IndyHall in Philadelphia.

I’d known about coworking and its evolution since 2007; in fact I talked with Noel Hidalgo on video about the concept in Berlin in July 2007, along with Travis Todd, but while I liked the idea of coworking I didn’t really have a way to put it in practice yet.

Well, after seeing events like SocialDevCamp, Ignite Baltimore, and TwinTech take root here in the Baltimore area, it became clear to me that the time was also ripe for coworking in Baltimore. As I shared the idea with friends and colleagues, it was clear that we could build momentum around the concept quickly.

So, on Saturday and with Alex’s help, we held a session on coworking at SocialDevCampEast2, and we went over the key concepts behind coworking, answered some questions, and by the end of the session had created a mailing list.  Yesterday we held the first “official” Baltimore coworking session at Bluehouse, and we expect to keep that up every Tuesday and Thursday until we establish a more permanent home.

Of all the insights that Alex has gained in running IndyHall, I’d say this is the most important: “If IndyHall, as a place, ceased to exist tomorrow, IndyHall would still exist as a community.”  And this is truly key. Too often, people get distracted with the particulars of a piece of real estate or a locale or amenities; none of that is central to the mission.  The most important thing is the community and the ideas they share. There will always be a place where that community can take root.

That being said, we are looking at various ways to give coworking in Baltimore a more permanent home, and we have a bunch of ideas about how to do that.  If you would like to be in on that conversation, I invite you to join the Coworking Baltimore Google Group.  And of course, stop by Bluehouse next week on Tuesday or Thursday, between 10am and 4pm!

Feel free to contact me with ideas or questions about coworking and how we can establish a sustainable, vibrant creative community here in Baltimore! I’m really looking forward to working with all of you.