The Starfish and the Spider

The Starfish and the SpiderIf you cut off a spider’s leg, it is crippled and likely to die. If you cut off the leg of a starfish, it grows a new one. Fascinatingly, the severed leg can grow into a second starfish. That is the metaphor alluded to in the title of The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom.

This book focuses on making the case that

The absence of structure, leadership, and formal organization, once considered a weakness, has become a major asset.

As I was checking this book out from the Berkeley Public Library, the librarian noticed the subtitle and remarked that “all the anarchists should read this one.” At first I was taken aback, given that the book is filed in the business section. Then I realized: Hey! This is Berkeley, its OK to be radical. Plus I probably looked the part, dirty clothes and long hair matted from riding my bicycle in the rain.

However, the authors inform us that:

…a decentralized system is not the same as anarchy. There are rules and norms, but these aren’t enforced by any one person. Rather, the power is distributed among all the people and across geographic regions.

It is this distribution that allows decentralized systems to be more resilient than centralized ones. The book explores case studies and examines the operational principles behind such organizations: what is required for them to form, how is critical mass gained, and what holds them together through time.

The second half of the book takes a different turn, discussing how a centralized organization can take on a decentralized one. Out of that comes the recommendation of a hybrid organization, which blends best practices from each end of the spectrum.

Included among the companies in the book are Craigslist, with its free classifieds, and eBay, with its user-vetted reputations. While each of these systems are decentralized, they are a product created by the business, which operates largely externally to the business itself.

I would have preferred a deeper analysis of businesses that operate internally in a decentralized fashion. Perhaps there are none, however.

Despite that, The Starfish and the Spider offers many insights that make it worth reading. It provides a solid starting point for further reading and additional understanding, if that is desired.


Lonna Hanson
February 13, 2008 at 11:39 AM

I enjoyed your entry, Jared. I have always worked in school systems with double leadership-re. superintendent and principal. I find your examples of the other kind of organization very interesting.

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