“Most of us know that a spider is a creature with eight legs coming out of a central body. With a magnifying glass, we can see that a spider also has a tiny head and eight eyes…If you chop off the spider’s head, it dies. It could maybe survive without a leg or two, and could possibly even stand to lose a couple of eyes, but it certainly couldn’t survive without its head…At first glance, a starfish is similar to a spider in appearance. Like a spider, the starfish appears to have a bunch of legs coming out of a central body. But that’s where the similarities end…With a spider, a body’s a body, a head’s a head, and a leg’s a leg. But starfish are very different. The starfish doesn’t have a head. Its central body isn’t even in charge. In fact, the major organs are replicated throughout each and every arm. If you cut the starfish in half, you’ll be in for a surprise: the animal won’t die, and pretty soon you’ll have two starfish to deal with…They can achieve this magical regeneration because in reality, a starfish is a neural network – basically a network of cells. Instead of having a head, like a spider, the starfish functions as a decentralized network. Get this: for the starfish to move, one of the arms must convince the other arms that it’s a good idea to do so.” Excerpted from The Starfish and the Spider, by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom.
Why the frack am I prattling on about starfish, spiders, and cats? I am contemplating how it is that CAN, the youngest acu-org in the nation, has grown the loudest voice in an industry of apathetic naysayers. In recent weeks, we ruffled feathers among the Presidents of various acupuncture colleges with almost 200 comments to the USDE about Title IV funding. This spring, we submitted hundreds of responses to the New York Times within 48 hours of their article mentioning Community Acupuncture. And last winter, we procured thousands of letters to the ACAOM during their FPD public comment period.
How is it that we’ve organized a notoriously apolitical group of professionals into the lively, passionate conglomerate that is CAN?
Steven Stumpf has referred to CAN as a “decentralized organization.” And that, I believe, is the key to our anomaly. I recently read Brafman and Beckstrom’s above-referenced book, subtitled The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, and it floored me. The authors open their book by revealing that in response to over-centralized industries (like the inbreeding of the AAAOM, CCAOM, ACAOM, NCCAOM), participants rebel and create open starfish systems (like CAN). Every single page of The Starfish and the Spider spoke to the spirit of CAN, and it reminded me of what I love most about this organization: the punks who pour their hearts and souls into it. The advent of the Internet has helped unleash countless decentralized organizations, such as CAN. Society is being rearranged very fundamentally, at a faster rate than many people realize, because of the speed at which information is shared.
The acupuncture industry is no exception.
Let’s look at one of the best-known starfish of them all: Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). At AA, no one’s in charge. And yet, everyone’s in charge. It is an open system in action. AA is constantly changing form as new members come in and others leave. The one thing that remains constant is the recovery principle – the famous Twelve Steps. Brafman and Beckstrom note that in decentralized organizations—such as AA—members can help each other without asking permission or getting approval from anyone. Empowering members in such a way enables open systems to quickly adapt and respond to changing needs.
Sound familiar? If you’re a CAN member, you’ve likely explored the rich forums inside this website where members talk to one another daily: seeking advice, swapping stories, asking for support…”helping each other without asking permission or getting approval from anyone.”
Like AA’s famous Twelve Steps, CAN clinics adhere to core principles as defined in our mission statement on top of the home page: acupuncture is offered in a group setting for $15 – $40, no less than three days per week. Will we kick you out of CAN if you don’t meet the guidelines? Naaaah. Just like in AA, you’re welcome to stick around and learn as much as you can for as long as you’d like, whether or not you adhere to all of our principles. (Just don’t ask us to modify them to meet your needs. In the same way that AA’s alcoholics don’t get to modify the Twelve Steps to make their work easier, our core principles are not up for discussion…but you are welcome to start your own separate organization, if you feel so inclined.)
In The Starfish and The Spider, the authors identified seven major principles of decentralization:
1. When attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more open and decentralized.
Look at what happened when somebody dissed a fellow clinic’s grand opening. According to Brafman and Beckstrom, “For the starfish to move, one of the arms must convince the other arms that it’s a good idea to (act).” Our members quickly launched into action by commenting on the original article, and they commented again on the subsequent CAN blog. We saw this same behavior with the NYT article: over 100 pro-CAN comments on the Well Blog in less than 24 hours, before the article had even been printed, and dozens more comments on Lisa’s blog in the days after. In fact, we see it over and over when any of our comrades are “attacked” on these blogs: individual CAN members come out of the woodwork to defend and discuss what is happening. While some of these commentators are members of the CAN-Board or Executive Committee, the vast majority are not. It is apparent that our members feel empowered to speak their truths without having to first run their commentary through a chain-of-command filter.
Now, compare that with the reaction of the very centralized AAAOM members to this summer’s British Journal article about acupuncture safety. *crickets* It took some time for the AAAOM’s executives to analyze and approve their official response. Eventually, the heads of this spider club drafted a formal position and posted it on Acupuncture Today. According to Brafman and Beckstrom, centralized organizations are notoriously slow and creaky in their responsiveness to attack.
2. It is easy to mistake starfish for spiders.
Outsiders often mistake CAN for a spider and complain that we are “disorganized.” What they misunderstand is that we’re not trying to replicate anything else in our industry’s existence. We are not trying to be orderly or convenient to work with. But observers who mistakenly assume that CAN should be more centralized, and perceive our “chaos” as a shortcoming, wrongly classify us as an entity that we have no intention of becoming.
“In the digital world, decentralization will continue to change the face of industry and society…These forces can be harnessed for immense power…Decentralized organizations appear at first glance to be messy and chaotic. But when we begin to appreciate their full potential, what initially looked like entropy turns out to be one of the most powerful forces the world has seen.” — The Starfish and The Spider, p. 208
3. An open system doesn’t have central intelligence; intelligence is spread throughout the system. Information filters in at the edges, close to action.
CAN has no phone number. No central headquarters. We are a cyber-network of punks spread from coast-to-coast and around the world. We share what we hear in our communities: filtering in at the edges, close to action. Some of us even get our very own Deep Throats.* This is a reversal of the command and control system of yore where most important decisions were made by senior folks at the top of the organization. The latter process was slow as the information travelled from the point of action uphill, to the point of decision, and then back down again.
4. Open systems can easily mutate.
150 clinics, at last count. Enough said.
5. The decentralized organization sneaks up on you.
Brafman & Beckstrom write: “Spider organizations weave their webs over long periods of time, slowly amassing resources and becoming more centralized. But the starfish can take over an entire industry in the blink of an eye.”
- By the time AT realized CAN’s “dangerous potential to the profession” in 2006, they had already given us our springboard for inception via the Social Entrepreneurship Talk Back forums (thanks!).
- CAN unexpectedly and quite successfully stopped the forward movement of the FPD in 2008, and our ongoing efforts against the FPD were on the front page of June’s AT.
- Utne Reader’s one and only article on acupuncture was about Community Acupuncture.
CAN has redefined acupuncture: who gets it, how much it costs, what the treatment room looks like, which story the mainstream media should present. The ACAOM doctoral task force had been at work on the FPD for over ten years (weaving their webs over long periods of time); in the blink of an eye, we challenged the notion that more education makes for a better practitioner and brought their slow progress to a halt in 2008.
6. As industries become decentralized, overall profits decrease.
This is our peers’ biggest complaint about Community Acupuncture: we devalue the profession with our bargain-basement prices.
7. Put people into an open system, and they’ll automatically want to contribute.
Much like a gift economy, our members want to contribute. People on CAN help in the best way they each know how: by congratulating a new clinic’s opening, by sharing an experience, by blogging, or just by showing-up to check the forums and see if anyone on the site needs support. In four years’ time, we have amassed over 1,000 blogs; 5,000 informational threads; and 29,000 comments on this website. Our members like to contribute…a lot.
Contrast that with the AAAOM’s forums…wait, they appear to have discontinued their forums. Perhaps due to non-use? Last I checked, they had been inactive for over a year.
In addition to the above seven principles, the authors also identified Five Building Blocks in the foundations of decentralized organizations:
Membership consists of circles. Each of our CAN-clinics is an independent, autonomous circle within its own community: TCA in Tucson, MCA in Milwaukee, WCA in Portland, SCA in Sarasota, PCA in Philadelphia, etc. Furthermore, many of our clinics have banded together to form larger circles of regional nodes, which can then act independently to coordinate regional activities, media campaigns, or networking opportunities.
Ideology is the glue that holds decentralized organizations together. In CAN, it is the notion that acupuncture should not be expensive, but rather accessible to people of ordinary financial means.
3. Pre-existing Network.
Again: hat-tip to AT for giving us a platform from which to piggyback and launch this entity.
Leaders of starfish organizations are vastly different from traditional executives. A catalyst initiates a reaction and then fades away into the background. They generate ideas and then allow the circle to follow through. They get a decentralized organization going and then cede control to the members. Letting go of the leadership role (as ours did three years ago), the catalyst transfers ownership and responsibility to the group. The catalyst is an “inspirational” figure who spurs others to action. Circles don’t form on their own; a catalyst develops an idea, shares it with others, and leads by example. Sound like any inspiring punks you know? Catalysts know that the way to mobilize people is to share inspirational stories. They go on the road, share the common ideology, and create new circles in their wake.
Like catalysts, champions operate best in non-hierarchical environments. A champion is relentless in promoting a new idea. Catalysts are charismatic, but champions take it to the next level. Catalysts inspire and naturally connect people, but there’s nothing subtle about the champion. When intrigued with an idea, they grab on and won’t let go. Champions are inherently hyperactive. According to Brafman & Beckstrom, the Champion is “brazen and bold…(with)…passion and determination…willing to fight to the end” for the organization’s ideology.”
Back to my point…What I love about CAN are the punks who pour themselves into supporting new clinics, who share their stories (inspirational and otherwise), who help foster a supportive and collegial environment. I love that the life force of CAN is its members, a decentralized mass of technicians and social activists. I love that we’re messy and chaotic and unpredictable. I just mostly am writing to say that I love all of you. ~smooch~
*Oh, and here’s another Deep Throat message:“If you assume 79.2 visits per year per 1000 adult population (the NIH 2007 study), and assume 228,182,000 US adults (Wikipedia), and assume 26,000 acupuncturists (a VERY conservative number that does not take into account non-LAc’s like Chiropractors, Naturopaths, and NADA workers) and a 48-week work year you get about 14.5 visits per week per practitioner. That’s average, of course, so if any of you are doing 100 tx per week, 5 people aren’t doing any. A need to keep my day job is keeping me from posting this; I figured you might find use for it in your next blog. 8-/”