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PMA, Starfish And The Tea Party

As we head off to the PMA Convention in Orlando, its proximity to the election gives us cause to explain how valuable attending industry events can be. Of course, we all recognize the value of networking and can see how a trade show with an opportunity to buy and sell can certainly produce value.

Yet, over the years we have found the workshops and programs to produce the most lasting value and often in unpredictable ways.

For example, at the 2009 PMA-FIT Leadership Symposium, back when PRODUCE BUSINESS was a partner along with PMA and Cornell University, there was a speaker who wrote and talked about a 2006 book, titled, The Starfish and the Spider. Rod A. Beckstrom wrote the book with Ori Brafman, but it was Beckstrom alone who gave the talk.

It was a fascinating workshop in which the author detailed his thesis, which was that traditional organizations were structured like spiders with a centralized “head” that could be chopped off. If the head was destroyed, the organization died. Mr. Beckstrom explained that other types of organizations — think of the music-sharing site Napster, or the terrorist group Al Queda, for example — were organized more along the lines of starfish, without centralized authority. Interestingly, if you chop off an “arm” of certain star fish, the starfish will grow a new arm and the arm itself will grow a new starfish. This makes certain types of organizations very difficult to destroy.

The thesis went on to say that though decentralized organizations go down through history, the ubiquity of the Internet has made them more powerful and relevant.

It turns out that this model is the perfect lens from which to view the rise of “The Tea Party” in American politics. Whereas the GOP has a structure, a national director, etc., the Tea Party movement has no president or board of directors. There is no boss or someone who can expel you from the Tea Party.

In other words, it is precisely the kind of movement that Mr. Beckstrom was thinking about.

Basically, the point here is that one of the worst possible things you can do at PMA is decide to only go to things that you know to be relevant. The problem with that approach is that it condemns you to live in a sheltered intellectual world in which you only expose yourself to a narrow band of knowledge.

Nobody sitting in that room at the PMA-Fit Leadership Symposium back in 2009 had the notion that this speaker and this book would help them better understand American politics in 2010. Yet it did.

You should remember the unpredictable utility of knowledge when deciding whether to take advantage of the knowledge available at the world’s most comprehensive produce event — PMA’s Fresh Summit.

Here is a short video in which Jonathan Rauch, who wrote a piece on the subject for National Journal, explains how the “headless” starfish model applies well to the Tea Party Movement and how major political parties are the spider in this story:

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