Book Review: The Starfish and the Spider

by Rosa Say on March 31, 2011

From the publisher:

The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless OrganizationsThe Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom

If you cut off a spider’s head, it dies. But if you cut off a starfish’s leg, it grows a new one, and that leg can grow into an entirely new starfish. Traditional top-down organizations are like spiders, but now starfish organizations are changing the face of business and the world.

What’s the hidden power behind the success of Wikipedia, Craigslist, and Skype? What do eBay and General Electric have in common with the abolitionist and women’s rights movements? What fundamental choice put General Motors and Toyota on vastly different paths? How could winning a Supreme Court case be the biggest mistake MGM could have made?

After five years of ground-breaking research, Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom share some unexpected answers, gripping stories, and a tapestry of unlikely connections. The Starfish and the Spider argues that organizations fall into two categories: traditional “spiders,” which have a rigid hierarchy and top-down leadership, and revolutionary “starfish,” which rely on the power of peer relationships. It reveals how established companies and institutions, from IBM to Intuit to the U.S. government, are also learning how to incorporate starfish principles to achieve success.

My review:

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m a bit late to this, for The Starfish and the Spider was quite the darling of business book readers when it was published in 2006, and reading it now I can understand why. In the new Epilogue written for this edition, author Ori Brafman talks about “speaking starfish” saying, “it’s been exciting to see Starfish provide a language for people to describe their organizations,” something I can definitely understand and echo, for clear vocabulary and a strong language of intention is key in effectively communicating any business model. Besides the starfish (decentralized organizations) and spider (centralized, more tradition ones with heavy top level power players), Brafman and Beckstrom make the roles of catalyst and champion sound very appealing (in comparison to the CEO) in both types of organizations.

The authors strive to be objective, but I felt they gave short shrift to the downsides of decentralization, other than quick statements such as “decentralization brings out creativity, but it also creates variance.” Another: “Where did this revenue go? The revenues disappeared.” (Admittedly, there is too much champion and too little catalyst in me” so much for my own objectivity!) And perhaps they were doing so purposely, taking their cue from the catalysts they so obviously admire, who they say, have a “tolerance for ambiguity.”

I was relieved that they spoke of ideology as much as they did however, (i.e. and the importance of values), knowing how much this book has resonated in the business community. Their pitch is clear: The more successful organizations today are likely to be those who find their “sweet spot” between starfish and spider behaviors as “hybrid organizations” willing to change as the market demands.

The authors offer several case studies, making Starfish a very quick and interesting read; this book is terrific for a corporate book club when there’s a genuine desire to be open-minded, creative, and more innovative — the book is clearly a great conversation starter, and can inspire change. I can also see how it would foster more reading of related works, such as Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, James Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds, and Seth Godin’s Tribes. Much as I love playing in the world of business, the story which appealed to me most however, was about the Apache, and I found myself wanting to hear about more societal starfish movements; I’ll bet this book has a strong following in the Tea Party and newly emerging People’s Party movements.

View all my reviews on Goodreads.

Why Goodreads? They have become an App Smart choice for me in 2011 for I want to return to more book reading, and have set a goal to read at least 36 books this year (this was book 10 for me). Read more about the Goodreads mission here, and let’s connect there if you decide to try it too! You can also follow them on Twitter.

Above: An exposed fossil slab from the Sahara: Starfish have been around for a very long time. There are a lot of photos taken of starfish, but this one appealed to me as a reminder of how the authors speak of “Circles” as small, non-hierarchical groups which are independent and autonomous.

Archive Aloha: Books Come to You at Least Twice

Additional Book Notes:

The major principles of decentralization, as discussed by the authors: Italics is theirs, verbatim, commentary is mine.

  1. When attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more open and decentralized. Example given: Story of the Apache, and what happened when a centralized body and coercive system (the Spanish) tried to take on an open system (the Apache.) In short, the Spanish lost.
  2. It’s easy to mistake starfish for spiders. Example given: Story of the French needing a President of the Internet (though to me it was more a story about wanting to have, and see a spider despite all the evidence of having a starfish. With this one, the authors suggest we “ask the right questions:”
    1~ Is there a person in charge? (spider)
    2~ Are there headquarters? (spider)
    3~ If you thump it on the head, will it die? (spider)
    4~ Is there a clear division of roles? (spider)
    5~ If you take out a unit, is the organization harmed? (spider)
    6~ Are knowledge and power concentrated (spider) or distributed? (starfish)
    7~ Is the organization flexible (starfish) or rigid? (spider)
    8~ Can you count the employees or participants? (spider)
    9~ Are working groups funded by the organization (spider), or are they self-funding? (starfish)
    10~ Do working groups communicate directly (starfish) or through intermediaries? (spider)
  3. An open system doesn’t have central intelligence; the intelligence is spread throughout the system. Culling this intelligence, and giving it the respect it’s due, is to me one of the greatest promises of more decentralization.
  4. Open systems can easily mutate. Example given: The open system of Alcoholics Anonymous, bound only by the ideology of the twelve-step model.
  5. The decentralized organization sneaks up on you. Because starfish mutate so quickly, their colonies can also grow with incredible speed; they can take over an entire industry in the blink of an eye.
  6. As industries become decentralized, overall profits decrease. Introduce starfish into the equation and wave goodbye to high profits. Revenue is not a bad thing, and this quandary is what a hybrid organization must reconcile with.
  7. Put people into an open system and they’ll automatically want to contribute. I found this to be a big assumption, but I like it if the data truly backs it up! Example given here (and it’s a good one) was Wikipedia.
  8. When attacked, centralized organizations tend to become even more centralized. They hunker down. Example given: Research labs have gone underground to curb attacks by ALF activists (Animal Liberation Front).

“A decentralized organization stands on five legs. As with the starfish, it can lose a leg or two and still survive. But when you have all the legs working together, a decentralized organization can really take off.”

  1. Circles. Today we are seeing how circles of people gain freedom and flexibility when they go virtual, but physical presence is still most powerful.
  2. The Catalyst. A catalyst gets a decentralized organization going, and then cedes control to the members. There is a full chapter dedicated to the catalyst, to outline the tools of their trade:
    1~ Genuine interest in others
    2~ Loose connections, and a lot of them
    3~ Intuition with mapping how others fit into social networks
    4~ Desire to help
    5~ Passion; the catalyst provides the drumbeat for a decentralized organization
    6~ They meet people where they are
    7~ Emotional intelligence
    8~ Trust in people, and the flattened hierarchy which results, knowing you can’t control all outcomes
    9~ Inspiration, inspiring others to work toward a goal which often doesn’t involve personal gain
    10~ Tolerance for ambiguity; they often don’t know the details, leaving them to their champions
    11~ The hands-off approach
    12~ Receding. After catalysts map a network, make connections, build trust, and inspire people to act, they leave.
  3. Ideology. It’s not just about community (lots of organizations offer community), not just about getting stuff for free, not just about freedom and trust. Ideology is the glue that holds decentralized organizations together.
  4. The Preexisting Network. The Quakers would help Granville Sharp combat slavery in Great Britain.
  5. The Champion. A champion is relentless in promoting a new idea. Granville Sharp needed the dedication and tenacity of his champion, Thomas Clarkson. Catalysts are charismatic, but champions take it to the next level; there’s nothing subtle about the champion.

The authors conclude with a set of Rules for the New World:

“Just as the telephone changed communications and technology changed warfare, the forces of decentralization have created a new set of rules… as we looked at these cases [of rapid change] we began seeing new patterns. Some have been surprising, and many have at first seemed counterintuitive.”

  • Rule 1: Diseconomies of Scale: “It can be better to be small.”
  • Rule 2: The Network Effect: “Often without spending a dime, starfish organizations create communities where each new member adds value to the larger network.
  • Rule 3: The Power of Chaos: “Starfish systems are wonderful incubators for creative, destructive, innovative, or crazy ideas. Anything goes. Good ideas will attract more people, and in a circle they’ll execute the plan.”
  • Rule 4: Knowledge at the Edge: “The best knowledge is often at the fringe of an organization.”
  • Rule 5: Everyone Wants to Contribute: “Not only do people have knowledge, they also have a fundamental desire to share it and to contribute.”
  • Rule 6: Beware the Hydra Response: “Take on a starfish and you’ll be in for a surprise… cut off the arm of a starfish, and it will grow a whole new body.”
  • Rule 7: Catalysts Rule: “Not because they run the show. Catalysts are important because they inspire people to action.”
  • Rule 8: The Values ARE the Organization: “Ideology is the fuel that drives the decentralized organization.”
  • Rule 9: Measure, Monitor, and Manage: “We can still measure the ambiguous and chaotic; but when measuring a decentralized network, it’s better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong.”
  • Rule 10: Flatten or Be Flattened: “Often, the best hope for survival if we can’t beat them is to join them… increasingly, companies must take the hybrid approach.”

And the final word:

“Yes, 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.”

Previous post:

Next post: