A critical review of the effectiveness of “Starfish” creative teams

Essay, 2016

4 Pages, Grade: 80


A critical review of the effectiveness of “Starfish” creative teams, in particular reference to Brafman and Beckstrom’s (2006) ‘The Starfish and the Spider’

For a long time, the structures of industries have followed a linear, hierarchical approach with a prioritisation on hiring a single central ‘ideal candidate’ whose proficiency can filter down a company (Haughton, 2016). Increasingly however, there has been a new trend of what Brafman and Beckstrom (2006) term ‘starfish firms’, referring to companies in which there is a greater emphasis on the ‘power of peer-to-peer relationships’, whereby ‘Each member is assumed to be equally knowledgeable and has power equal to that of any other member.’ But how effective is such a structure within the context of a creative industry?

To measure effectiveness, we must first define it within a creative framework. Whilst in a traditional organisation, effectiveness could be quantified in terms of profit or loss; creative industries have seen a shift towards a ‘’creative economy’ where ideas and knowledge are the new capital.’ (Bilton, 2007). In essence of this specialised goal where ideas are so fundamental, creative organisations may require a specialised leadership structure that is different to that of a traditional businesses. The decentralisation aspect of the ‘starfish’ approach, works with the ideology that “innovation is not about solo genius but collective genius” (Linda Hill TED Talks, 2015). The intention is that in spreading an organisation out in an alternative and “decentralized” (Brafman and Beckstrom, 2006) manner, where there is no central control room but rather each member follows their own instruction, there is a less restricted flow of ideas.

Brafman and Beckstrom (2006) argue that within traditional organisations this ‘decentralisation’ and flexibility, is the thing that allows a company to survive. Whereas in a traditional company, an idea has to be filtered through many layers before being given the go ahead by the CEO, within a ‘Starfish’ corporation teams and individuals can go off and act on their own instincts quickly enough to defend themselves from attack. Furthermore, if this team fails, then the organisation can still survive, as ‘when attacked, a decentralized organisation tends to become more open and decentralized’ (Brafman and Beckstrom, 2006). Unilever, have successfully adapted this decentralised structure in an attempt to ‘benefit from everybody’s creativity’ by adapting to a ‘matrix of individual managers around the world who share a common vision.’ (Harvard Business review, 1992) In an increasingly ‘consumer driven’ market, the fact that ‘Unilever’s foods business continues to grow overall, especially in Europe and North America’ is arguably testimonial to its decentralised business structure’s ability to survive. But is Unilever really a ‘creative’ organisation or rather a company full of businesspeople practicing a creative process? What would happen if you applied the same structure to a creative process undertaken by ‘creative’ people?

Creative organisation Pixar Animation studios, have adopted a decentralised approach to creation that is arguably similar to that of as a starfish, with an ethos from its owner R.Nelson (2010) that "We're all filmmakers here. We all have access to the same curriculum. In class, people from every level sit right next to our directors and the president of the company." Assuming Saunders and Koestlers (1966) ‘bisocation’ definition of creativity, where there is a mixture of ‘visual physiognomies from two contexts or categories of objects that are normally considered separate categories by the literal processes of the mind.’ Then perhaps it was this allowance of the flow of ideas between different departments that has contributed to the success of Pixar, in the bouncing off of different ideas that would never normally meet within a hierarchical and centralised team. But is the freedom to bounce off ideas enough for a creative team to succeed?

Chamarro-Premuzic (2016) argues that the very creativity of an individual can in fact be a hindrance to productivity, as whilst a ‘Suppressed creativity is a malign organizational tumour’, creative people are also ‘natural experimenters’. On one end of the scale, if you allow creative people to celebrate their individualism with nobody above them to say what is right or wrong then you run the risk of being ‘Centrifugal’ and potentially way off the mark of fitting to a brief, on the other side however, if you put ‘creatives’ into boxes then you may have a creative who is too ‘centripetal’ and cannot think outside of their own realms nor innovate (Bilton, 2007). But can creativity be forced? Or do creative people need to be managed just the same as non-creative people?

Bhattacharya and Petsche (2005) found that when people were given no constraints, in other words no management and were allowed to manage their own thoughts in a relaxed state, they were ‘more likely to arrive at creative solutions when problem-solving.’ He also found that the act of ‘divergence’ of ideas was particularly significant in the minds of artists, as when given the task of drawing themselves, the ‘patterns of functional cooperation between cortical regions during mental creation of drawings were significantly different from those in non-artists’. But whilst this suggests that creative people are ‘productive’ in a different way, is there really any way to measure this empirically? And what does that mean in terms of managing this efficiently?

Brafman and Beckstrom (2006), discuss the effectiveness of a ‘catalyst’ as an idealistic backbone behind a ‘starfish’. They ‘develop an idea, share it with others and lead by example.’ Unlike a traditional leader however, they do not stay around, they merely provide the tools for their company to thrive, thus the catalysts actions are central to the decentralisation of an organisation. In this way, the leader is selected through respect rather than through power and a ‘Gemeinschaft’ community is formed in which groupings are based upon ‘an essential will’ rather than an ‘arbitrary’ one (Goodman and Dingli, 2013). In a discussion of this concept of natural selection with an actress who has appeared in many devised theatre performances, she stated “whilst every creative craves the fantasy of being an equal part of a company, even in a devised piece, a natural leader is always born within the group, particularly as deadlines begin to loom. Someone will self-elect or be elected as the person who keeps everyone on track. There would be no performance without it.” (Halpin, 2016)

In reference to the above, because of the diversity of the creative process, it could be argued that at different stages in the process this ‘accordion principle’ comes into play where the organisation adapts from decentralised to centralised and back where appropriate (Brafman and Beckstrom, 2006). Whilst it does seem that some creative tension is important for ‘bisocation’, in a brainstorming session for example. It appears that this tension needs to be managed, directed and people need to be held accountable to reach a final goal. Arguably, one creative team in an industry may have a different combination of talents and personality to that of a similar industry, thus it is the responsibility of the company, to decide whether a centralisation or decentralisation is most appropriate, considering the characteristics of each individual, as well as the geographical positioning of the company. In terms of practicality, although an individualistic approach may well produce the most ‘creative’ results, the decision of whether to decentralise an organisation or not is the difference between a safety net of capital or a risky innovation. In such a competitive market, it is understandable why many organisations would choose the first. For this reason, the effectiveness of decentralised creative industries may remain questionable for a long time yet.

Wordcount: 1230


Excerpt out of 4 pages


A critical review of the effectiveness of “Starfish” creative teams
University of Warwick
MA Creative and Media Enterprises - Art Management
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
502 KB
Management, Creativity, Autonomony, Spider and The Starfish, Team Design, Collaboration
Quote paper
Katie-Marie Lynch (Author), 2016, A critical review of the effectiveness of “Starfish” creative teams, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/373112


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