|The Starfish and the Spider
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"Understanding the amazing force that links some of today's most successful companiesIf you cut off a spider's leg, it's crippled; if you cut off its head, it dies. But if you cut off a starfish's leg it grows a new one, and the old leg can grow into an entirely new starfish. 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 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. The Starfish and the Spider explores what happens when starfish take on spiders (such as the music industry vs. Napster, Kazaa, and the P2P services that followed). It reveals how established companies and institutions, from IBM to Intuit to the US government, are also learning how to incorporate starfish principles to achieve success. The book explores:
How the Apaches fended off the powerful Spanish army for 200 years
The power of a simple circle
The importance of catalysts who have an uncanny ability to bring people together
How the Internet has become a breeding ground for leaderless organizations
How Alcoholics Anonymous has reached untold millions with only a shared ideology and without a leader
The Starfish and the Spider is the rare book that will change how you understand the world around you. "
- The balance between the centre and the periphery of anything
This is a useful book. It's a meditation on the age old problem of how to get the centre and the periphery of an organisation working together.
The centre may well have a clear idea of what needs to be done, and what standards and specifications it wants.(command and control) The people who actually do the work (the periphery) will know whether what the centre wants is realistic, and whether they are willing to help the centre achieve its goals. The very act of central command and control tends to turn people against it.
This book helps us to see why so many organisations in UK and worldwide are struggling, and are losing staff loyalty rapidly. The UK NHS is a prime example of an over centralised monolith that is scared to decentralise, and where the periphery largely holds the centre in contempt.
This book shows us the future of how organisations will need to work if they want to succeed in balancing some central direction with the energy and enthusiasm of their workers.
It's a a very useful book, well written using a simple easily understood metaphor. Starfish can survive without a central control, spiders are a central control, but take them out and the web around them crumbles.
- Some distortions..
While the book is a good read on how organizations are changing to take advantage of the long tail enabled by internet and search engines. However some conclusions are not in tune with reality. For example, AT&T is said to have gone down because of the pressure from SKYPE, a starfish organization. While AT&T may have gone down but the majority of the Telecom is still under former baby bells. Similarly the RIAA inability to sue some of the file sharing networks is shown to be their strength whereas RIAA willingness to sue these networks may be the reason why they are anonymous....more info
- Decent ideas but repetitive
If you are looking to start/run an organization whose goal is not to make money, take a look at this book. While the author uses excellent examples, they are not particularly useful when discussing a for-profit company. At the end, the author discusses "hybrid" organizations, revealing the lack of examples of successful for-profit companies that employ the starfish model.
The author also gets a bit repetitive - at times the book reads like an essay about a single simple idea that has been stretched into a full length book....more info
- A handbook for world changers
No matter how you identify yourself in the human ecosystem -- worker bee, sheriff, manager, capitalist, entrepreneur, politician, healer, parent, activist or consultant -- this book is going to turn on lights in your brain. It's that multi-layered. It's also that packed with the kind of simply brilliant insights that are totally familiar, and you wonder why you didn't remember that you knew that.
The Starfish and the Spider is about the power of individuals coalescing in groups of common interest and goals. It is about people doing things because they are important and meaningful to them. And how, under these circumstances, hierarchical control just isn't necessary.
Using an eclectic group of examples that range from the guerrilla tactics of the Apaches against the colonial Spanish army to the network of independent AA groups to a variety of Internet-driven modern companies, the book distills some clear principles about the structure, roles and ultimate "unstoppability" of healthy starfish organizations in surviving, growing and getting things done.
Promoted as a business management book, this book has just as much value in many other realms. Specifically, it leads to interesting ideas in psychology, religion and spirituality, government, social activism, global diplomacy, and certainly no less, to individuals who are poised to become more active in their communities, local and global.
The fundamental concepts are not new. The tribal system of collaboration and cooperation, based on trust and kinship, undoubtedly predates the emergence of power-based heirarchies. The effectiveness of grassroots movements is well known. The achievements of these organizational systems -- often against heirarchy-based organizations with massively more wealth and power -- are detailed throughout the book.
However, the authors offer some new interpretations and suggestions about these laterally networked human systems can be used. To improve business performance in conventional, heirarchically organized firms. To achieve social change. And even to fight other laterally organized systems.
The overwhelming messsage of the book is the goodness of people, their willingness to step up and help better a situation. The only "dark" spot is the section about Al Qaeda and the stresses it creates not only on foreign nations it targets for terrorism, but on its home communities. The discussion in that section about ways to weaken the incentives for hate-based groups and then a story about what one community did about its embedded terrorists are sobering and fuel for debate.
Today, the ease of bringing together people and sharing information and plans is dramatically facilitated by the Internet and wireless telephones. That is also the message of this book. Starfish organizations are coalescing all around us, both in formal intent and casual happenstance. If the authors are correct about the goodness and inherent compassion in human nature, there has never been a time when there was so much potential to change the world for the better.
For individuals looking for inspiration and support, this is a crucial takeaway from this book. There is no excuse for complaining anymore about almost anything, because it is possible to gather people of like minds and do something about it. It requires learning to speak up. If requires learning to trust each other. It requires believing that things can be different. After that, the almost magical nature of these groups kicks in, and what can be accomplished is often more than anyone expected.
Sound too airy fairy? It's not. It's the most practical treatise on change management and individual empowerment I've ever read.
It's also a quick read and very entertaining. Read the book. You won't be sorry....more info
- Outstanding and Thought Provoking
This is an exceptional book addressing how decentralized organizations flourish. It is easy to read, yet stimulates exploratory thinking beyond its words. The suggestions in the Starfish and the Spider can impact society on the grand scale from fighting terrorism worldwide to defeating alcoholism. As a university professor, I read many business books. This is one of the best. I have recommended it to my graduate students, and they have unanimously agreed it is great....more info
- "Welcome to the starfish revolution."
With regard to the title of Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom's book, it consists of two metaphors. The starfish represents the decentralized network, one that has no central command because it is a neural network, "basically a network of cells...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...Starfish have an incredible quality to them: If you cut an arm off, most of these animals grow a new arm. And with some varieties, ...the animal can replicate itself from a single piece of an arm." What about the spider? With its eight legs coming out of a centralized body, tiny head, and eight eyes, it represents a centralized network. "If you chop off the head, it dies. Maybe it could survive without a leg or two, and could possibly even stand to lose a couple of eyes, but it certainly could couldn't survive without its head."
Brafman and Beckstrom rigorously examine primarily centralized organizations (e.g. Aztecs and the Spanish army) and primarily decentralized organizations (e.g. the Spanish conquistadores and Apaches) noting the most significant differences that help to explain why - when in conflict -- the former are vulnerable to the latter. In fact, when attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more open and decentralized, can easily be mistaken for a centralized organization, has intelligence distributed throughout the entire system, its open systems can easily mutate, it can "easily sneak up on you [while] growing incredibly quickly."
Readers will welcome the research-driven approach that Brafman and Beckstrom in this volume, especially the fact that after identifying the "what" (i.e. the central issues to be addressed), they focus almost all of their attention on "why" and "how" leaderless organizations are unstoppable. They offer dozens of real-world examples of organizations that have - or compete with those that have - "a hidden force" and "the harder you fight this force, the stronger it gets. The more chaotic it seems, the more resilient it is. The more you [or anyone else] tries to control it, the more unpredictable it becomes." How can this be true? How can the absence of structure, leadership, and formal organization, once considered a weakness, become a major asset? It is for starfish organizations; however, for spider organizations, as already indicated, it is a liability. They die.
Others have their reasons for holding this book in such high regard. I have already indicated a few of my own and now briefly discuss two others. First, Brafman and Beckstrom make brilliant use of several reader-friendly devices that consolidate key points. For example, in Chapter 2, they highlight some with italics such as the six principles of decentralization. Others are listed and numbered in sequence such as the right questions to ask so as to avoid "the French investor pitfall" (i.e. becoming mired in a discussion of "who's in charge?"). Later, in Chapter 4, Brafman and Beckstrom explain that a decentralized organization "stands on five legs" and "when you have all the legs working together, ...you can really take off." Each of them is then discussed in detail, with an exemplar associated with each. For example, "The Champion" is Leg 5. An Englishman, Thomas Clarkson, was relentless in promoting the abolition of slavery. He was inherently hyperactive and operated well in nonhierarchical environments. He formed a circle and was the only member who worked on the issue full-time. "For the next sixty years, Clarkson dedicated his life to the movement." Nonetheless, he was soon forgotten. "Credit for the abolition of slavery [in 1833, years before its abolition in America] was attributed to William Wilberforce, a politician who was the movement's ally and spokesman in Parliament." As the example of Clarkson clearly demonstrates, the various leaders of a decentralized movement never bother to secure recognition for themselves. Most people credit the success of a movement to the wrong person, in this instance a politician rather than an evangelist, because they do not understand the power of a starfish organization.
My second reason has to do with what Brafman and Beckstrom have to say about what they call "catalysts" Perhaps to a greater extent than do "champions," they have a much greater importance to decentralized organizations. Why? Because, after initiating a circle and then fading away into the background, moving on, the catalyst transfers ownership and responsibility to each circle's members. Think of catalysts as being those who concentrate on establishing an organizational infrastructure (especially in terms of its ideology) and do so inconspicuously. Their satisfaction has nothing to do with attracting attention and gaining power or praise; rather, with helping strengthen and advance a cause in which they passionately believe. In this context, I am reminded of the insights that Jeanne Liedtka, Robert Rosen, and Robert Wiltbank share in The Catalyst. In Chapter 6, they explain how to lead pragmatically and idealistically at the same time when leading a growth initiative: First, identify the starting point and destination, then recruit an A team because it takes the best people who "are fully committed to a shared vision [and who will] consistently perform at the top of their game."
Moreover, as Brafman and Beckstrom correctly emphasize in the final chapter, it is critically important for everyone involved to be at the top of their game when an decentralized organization's organization's "sweet spot" has been identified. That is, "the point along the centralized-decentralized continuum that yields the best competitive advantage. In a way, finding the sweet spot is like Goldilocks eating the various bowls of porridge: this one is too hot, this one is too cold, but this one is just right." Brafman and Beckstrom also remind their reader that there are new rules to the game. For example, "diseconomies" suggest that it is sometimes better to be small when speed and flexibility are required. Also, starfish systems "are wonderful incubators for creative, destructive, innovative, or crazy ideas. Anything goes...where creativity is valuable [and highly valued], learning to accept chaos is a must." Some people are uncomfortable with ambiguity. For whatever reasons, they need (or at least are convinced they must have) sharply defined organizational order and "command and control" supervisors.
There are others, however, who ask Brafman and Beckstrom how they can be a better starfish in what seems to be a spiderlike organization. That is an excellent question. "We pointed them to the model of Mother Teresa, who created the Missionaries of Charity, a starfishlike organization that has spread out to 133 countries, while still working within the confines of an ancient, hierarchical organization." My guess is that, during the decades to come, the number of organizations that are primarily starfishlike will increase and the number of organizations that are primarily spiderlike will decrease. But none will be either a starfish or spider because there will always be a need for both order/structure and "chaos"/freedom.
Congratulations to Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom. Well-done!...more info
- Finally a book that explains the Catalyst to the CEO!
Recently I was trying to cast vision for some technology we had invented in the cybercrime fighting space. The most powerful aspect of the technology was that it would allow the average user sitting home to contribute, if he or she wished, to our crime fighting efforts. We patented the tech, and a company entered into negotiations to buy it. They couldn't understand the vision. "Why would they do that? Nobody is going to pay them, why would they waste their time?" They tried to make our vision fit their understanding of the world, but it didn't work.
They would "waste their time", because people like me believe there are potential members of our "circle" all around us. People who share our passions and our mission, but just need a spark and some direction to enable them to accomplish great things. According to the Starfish and the Spider, people like my potential licensee think like CEOs rather than Catalysts. Its a worldview conflict gap that this book might help to bridge.
Like Malcolm Gladwell's "Tipping Point", Brafman and Beckstrom have explained a condition that some of us know to be true, but haven't explored deeply enough to be able to explain it with the eloquence and examples they have used in Starfish & Spider. I hope that others will read this book and will adapt its terminology as a new part of their business vocabulary, just like Gladwell's "Connectors, Mavens and Salesmen".
Highly recommended!...more info
- Thought Provoking approach to Power
I admit it, when I first started reading this book, I thought it was going to be about something else entirely. However, it introduced to me a new vocabulary and an interesting way of looking at power in organizations. At times contradictory, (starfish are very powerful but not good at creating revenue), this book challenged me to look carefully at my preconceived ideas of how businesses and organizations should be run.
The one thing missing, that keeps me from giving this book 5 stars, is a practical application. If you read it with an open mind, this book will undoubtedly get you thinking about status quo and where and how it should be challenged. Unfortunately, the authors do not provide any hands on advice for using the ideas promulgated to create our own starfish or hybrid organizations.
Karen L. Jett, CMA, author Grow Your People, Grow Your Business...more info
- A compelling metaphor
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, both as the founder (or "Champion" in Starfish terms) of the Bootstrap Network and author of The Human Fabric.
As Champion of the Bootstrap Network, it's great to see that we have been building a Starfish organization. Without knowledge of us, Ori and Rod have perfectly described our structure and inner workings. I suspect many others will have the same revelation. We describe our Network as an "open source community for bootstrappers" and now we have a simpler way to do so. It is also interesting that bootstrap startups tend to adopt Starfish patterns out of sheer necessity. For startups, Starfish is more efficient, requires less overhead and delivers a more adaptive organization.
As author of The Human Fabric, it is exciting to see parallels between Catalysts/Champions and their analogs in the MRE Framework. As described in the book, Champions are Evangelists, while Catalysts tend to be Mavens or Relaters. Starfish organizations, like great startups, have cofounders with complementary talents: someone who comes up with the innovation and someone who gets it out into the world.
Knowing about the Starfish creates a new set of questions: how do organizations evolve over time? Where does the model break down? Which facets are essential? What are the differences between Starfish organizations and Starfish technologies? All questions the authors are no doubt pondering. ...more info
- Worth your time.
Brafman & Beckstrom do a good job of explaining, almost from an organizational psychology stand point, how two types of organizations (he dubs them Spiders and Starfish) engage in their respective industries or arenas and the successes and failures of them based on being "Spiderlike" or "Starfishlike". He stretches the analogy at times, but all in all, a very good examination of how organizational structure and ideology can turn an expected result "upside down" or drop a company to it's knees if it does not respond to the changing nature of its industry.
If you are an entrepreneur, this book will give some excellent ideas for you to consider in regards to how you go about expanding your company.
Without giving any spoilers, they discuss Apache Indians, Wikipedia, Alcoholics Anonymous, Craig's List, and Apple to name a few....more info
- Must Read
I just completed reading The Starfish and the Spider. I found myself having a hard time putting it down. I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand the power of decentralization and the undeniable value of chaos. This book comes packed with countless modern-day examples of companies and individuals whose effort illustrates the power of being a regenerative Starfish.
This is a must read for anyone who does anything in business or simply wants to understand where many of today's modern successes come from and more importantly, why they are successful.
Ripple On and read this book!
- Elusive Nodes
This book offers an excellent discussion of the extremely elusive concept of networked type of organizations which social scientists refer to as organizations where decision making power is distributed and whose structure is flat. Such an organization consists of semi-autonomous nodes or cells linked and given cohesion by one or more factors such as kinship, mutual experiences, ethnic culture, or common ideology. In the 21st Century the Global Telecommunications Network (sic) serves as an enabler to networked type of organizations. The book, "Networks and Netwars" (Rand 2001, Amazon.com) provides a formal explanation of networked type of organizations, but will leave many folks still wondering about the anatomy of a networked type of organization.
The book quit effectively uses examples and the analogy of a starfish to both demonstrate and explain how networked type of organizations actually work in practice. This is very important and helpful because such organizations are becoming increasingly more common, but are very difficult for persons used to hierarchical organizations to understand. The book explains for example how the command and control system for al Qaeda cannot be knocked out because it does not exist. More ominously the book notes that as the U.S. increasingly centralizes its efforts against al Qaeda the harder it will be to cope with terrorist operations and threats.
There are now several first rate books available now on networked type of organizations, but this one is probably the best because of the clarity with which it explains what networked type of organizations are and how they really work. It is a shame that the U.S. Intelligence and National Security Communities appear unable to come to grips with geographically dispersed cell of one or more individuals using distributed decision making, and linked by such tenuous ties as personal relationships and shared ideology. This book offers some suggestions for dealing with networked type of organizations, but one is left with the impression that nobody is listening.
- A book with substance and great flow
The Starfish and the Spider is an insightful non-fiction book that reads like a novel. It's hard to put this book down, my favorite book this year. It's filled with stories, mysteries, and connections. The writing is crisp and engaging and elucidates the main premise: decentralized "starfish" organizations are gaining power and momentum and affecting hierarchical "spider" companies. Here are the main points the book makes:
- Starfish organizations have been around for a long time (e.g. The Apache Indians, Alcoholics Anonymous, the British Abolitionist movement, the American Women's Suffrage movement) but there has recently been a renaissance of new starfish organizations (e.g. Wikipedia, craigslist, Skype, eMule), riding the platform of the internet.
- Starfish organizations have three main DNA features: a shared ideology among members (e.g., for emule, "You should be able to download music for free"); a leader who acts like a catalyst instead of a CEO (e.g. Bill W. in AA); and independent circles (e.g. city-based craigslist communities).
- Starfish networks can be easily mistaken for traditional spiders, but they work and operate differently. Trying to kill off a starfish organization using spider tactics (e.g. banish the leader, sue the company) only serve to make the starfish network stronger.
- Although starfish companies do not usually generate high revenues, they can suck away revenues from an industry (think P2P music servers and the record labels).
- Starfish organizations empower their members and can create a strong sense of community.
- Even though starfish communities can bring out the best in people, they can also be dangerous (e.g. al Qaeda). There are three successful ways to combat a starfish organization: change the underlying starfish ideology, create hierarchy by giving property rights to some members, become decentralized yourself).
The last part of the book talks about how spider companies (e.g. Toyota, GE, eBay) have successfully integrated some starfish qualities to become more flexible and resilient. But what really holds the book together and makes it great is that it proves that creativity, cooperation, and letting go have their own unique and unparalleled power. ...more info
- Great metaphor but nothing new
Ori and Rod are onto something here. It isn't new or earth shattering and it is a repeat of a lot of other thought by Godin and Collins but they put it into a nice metaphor with some practical examples and suggestions. The spider is the centralized organization which is run by the head brain and has a tendency to hunker down and become more centralized when threatened. The Starfish is the decentralized organization that has NO head, when cut it will form two starfish and the organization tends to grow when threatened (witness: Al Qaeda) Examples of Starfish organizations are Skype, Craigslist, YouTube, etc.
A good book and a quick read but nothing really new or ground breaking. It has a great metaphor for today's organizational structures. I give it three out of five stars.
See an outline of this book and other reviews at [...]...more info
- Catch-22, Only Worse!
This book focuses on a new revolution you might have missed--what happens in movements without a hierarchy. The authors announce, "A lack of traditional leadership is giving rise to powerful groups that are turning industry and society upside down."
Cut off a spider's head and the poor guy is dead meat. Slice a leg off a starfish and the separated leg rejuvenates into a new starfish. There's a new sea change afoot of decentralized organizations (starfish) that are giving the top-down centralized organizations (spiders) a run for their money.
For an entertaining, but highly informative and important look at why the Apaches, the Quakers, Alcoholics Anonymous, Skype, eMule, Wikipedia, craigslist and other "open source" movements have changed and are changing the world, be sure someone on your team reads this book. You'll be dropping insights from the principles of decentralization into every conversation.
The nonprofit and ministry world is not unaccustomed to leaderless movements. Just check out the number of small group Bible studies most mornings at your local Starbucks or Denny's. Yet your vision will explode with new ideas and opportunities once you understand why when MGM (a spider) won their Supreme Court decision against Napster, they really lost.
Here are some conversation starters: 1) What is it about Wikipedia and craigslist--free services--that make them so appealing to millions of people? 2) Are there any centralized programs or services that your company, organization or denomination could decentralize and give away in the starfish mode?
Peter Drucker encouraged companies to "slough off yesterday"--one of the five balls in the "Results Bucket" of my book, Mastering The Management Buckets: 20 Critical Competencies for Leading Your Business or Non-profit. He said you must prune back to have capacity for the new opportunities coming your way. In the end, it's all about results. Some products, programs and services should be dropped--others might work well in the starfish mode. But focus on results, not leadership methodologies or systems.
Robert Byrne said, "There are two kinds of people, those who finish what they start and so on..." Leaderless organizations do work--but usually those who lead them don't truly finish what they start. It takes incredible discipline--which is often the reason why some folks flee the bureaucracy in the first place--they don't like leaders and they themselves are not leaders. It's a Catch-22, only worse!
- Astounding implications
The Starfish and the Spider should be mandatory reading for anyone operating a geographically disperse organization or trying to proliferate a vision. Amazingly simple with incredible implications. ...more info
- Starfish is a mind-game
Have you wondered why decentralized organizations are growing like wildfire? Starfish and Spider will tell you why. I work in a starfish organization and it is not for the faint-hearted or the one focused on structure and procedure.
This book is an excellent story about centralized, decentralized and hybrid organizations. If you want to kill a spider, cut off its head. You cannot cut off the head of a starfish as it does not have one. If cut off the leg of an starfish, it will grow another.......starfish. This shows how decentralized organizations have always been around and take after the way that our brain's function. Once thought to operate in a hierarchy, latest research shows the opposite. Brafman and Beckstrom are great storytellers and weave the Internet with Al Qadea
This book gives examples of the characteristics of decentralized organizations such as flexibility, shared power and ambiguity and how the Internet has spawned a new generation of decentralized organizations. It is a fascinating book.
Some principles of decentralized organizations;
1. when attacked, they become even more open and decentralized.
2. it is easy to mistake starfish for spiders.
3. an open system doesn't have central intelligence, the intelligence is spread throughout the system.
4. open systems can easily mutate.
5. the decentralized organization sneaks up on you.
6. as industries become decentralized, overall profits decrease.
They stand on 5 legs;
2. the Catalyst
4. the pre-existing network
5. the Champion
If you want to learn more about community, trust and openness in the 21st century, this is a must read. If you are interested in how organizations like Al Qaeda can thrive with many in the world looking for them, read this book.
- 3.5 stars
If you cut off one part of a starfish, it self-replicates and keeps going, because it's a decentralized body structure. If you cut off a spider's head, however, it dies, because it's a centralized body structure, with the brain as the command center.
Similarly, starfish organizations have a decentralized operational structure. Decisions may be made in teams or circles, without having to check in with the command center. The authors give the example of Alcoholics Anonymous, which has countless chapters throughout the world but no real hierarchical management structure. Yet its effectiveness lies in its self-governance.
By contrast the spider organization is the traditional, top-down, hierarchical structure that has become so popular in business in the modern era. Any branch of the military would be an example here. The authors use the illustration of major label record companies, who have fought a long an arduous battle against starfish peer-to-peer networks that allow for free (and illegal) music sharing.
In the end, the authors contend that (as you might have predicted) the most successful organization of the 21st century is the one that lives in the "sweet spot" between these two models. They also give some signs to watch for, so that one knows if one needs to tilt an organization more toward spider centralization or more toward starfish decentralization at any given time.
It's a helpful read, though if you understand the basic concepts outlined above and don't need the specific anecdotes or organizational illustrations, you can save yourself the time. The book is highly readable, yet basic in its substance--not much more nuancing takes place than what this review has described above.
The book also--somewhat annoyingly--capitalizes on the trendy move in business writing to take a concept or object from outside the business world and apply it to business. (Think "Blink," "The Black Swan," "Nudge," and so on.) Their formula of "Here is one extreme, now another, but what you really want to do is live in the *sweet spot*" is overdone and too predictable.
That said, their concepts are helpful. Busy business leaders who want just a basic understanding of these concepts should stick to reading a short summary of the book. But if these topics hold interest for you, the anecdotes make the book an enjoyable read, even if a bit short on substance....more info
- The Starfish and the Spider ... Yes!
I have a childhood memory of building a go-cart. Every kid in the neighborhood was involved. Who was in charge? Whoever had the right answer in the moment of the next right thing to do. Hands, hearts, minds worked together, one idea building on another. It was an emergent experience in every sense of the word. The go-cart was more beautiful and functional than any one of us could have built alone.
Before beginning to read The Starfish and the Spider, recall your own memories of magical groups in self organizing action. Whether you are a teacher, community leader, business owner, NGO officer, or corporate executive, this is a book worth reading.
This is a book about the power and magic of groups engaged in self-organizing, non-hierarchical projects. Using stories of business, politics, activism and common interest groups, the authors show how such groups coalesce, grow and effect change, often in the face of tremendous "conventional" opposition. Some of the examples include Wikipedia, eBay, Skype, Napster and P2P sharing, al Qaeda, and many open source and decentralized projects which are ... starfish like.
From the book: "Starfish have an incredible quality to them. If you cut an arm off, most of these animals grow a new arm. And with some varieties, such as the Linckia, or long-armed starfish, the animal can replicate itself from just a single piece of an arm. ...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 the spider, the starfish functions as a decentralized network..."
For me, one message of this book is that this "new" form of leadership does not need to be learned. Rather, it is a matter of unlearning our cultural training that a hierarchical organization is required to accomplish anything of importance. Once you understand the dynamics that authors Ori Braufman and Rod Beckstrom identify, you will begin to notice starfish-like organizations springing forth in many remarkable places.
The authors tell the story of Dave Garrison's (CEO of Netcom, 1995) attempt to engage French venture capitalists in investing in Netcom. Trying to understand his business model, the investors wanted to know, "Who is the President of the Internet?" "Who decides?" They could not grasp that the Internet had many contributors and no central leadership. It went against everything taught in the best business schools. Thus, the French investors declined to invest, and lost an incredible opportunity.
There is no question that there are stresses within starfish organizations. A go-cart is a short-lived project; a new business is in it for the long term. The games can be intense and the tactical agreements fluid. But common interests and shared objectives enable people to undertake the initial creative act of letting go, and learning to trust each other. With that, the locus of power and control shifts, and the results challenge everything we have been taught in our schools, MBA and management courses.
Throughout the book the authors illustrate and compare many aspects of both hierarchical "spider" organizations and leaderless "starfish" organizations. Simple graphs, role definitions and lists make it easier to see and feel the difference between these two ways of organizing.
This book is aimed at the business management market, but I believe it is worth serious study in universities and even elementary schools where principles of management and human relations are taught. Many aspects of starfish-like behavior are counter-intuitive to what we have learned in our schools, not only about how companies work but about how anything is accomplished.
For existing "spider" enterprises, it may be a challenge to embrace the starfish principles as a means to improve performance. As a spider cannot simply decide to change the design of its neural network and decentralize, neither can a top-down, centrally controlled organization or school. But in promoting and training the concepts of group genius in big corporations, I have seen the successes of "experimental" projects create a ripple effect on the entire corporate culture. Over time, even the most conventional firm can reframe its thinking and work towards the unstoppable engagement, commitment and achievement that can be found in leaderless organizations. This book promises that we will see more of it in the near and distant future.
The Starfish and the Spider is a celebration of the power of human beings taking their destiny into their own hands, and a welcome break from the artificial, mechanical-like treatment of human attributes that has saturated "management" theories based on hierarchal organization. Beyond describing a much more natural way of employing human talents, this book is particularly noteworthy because it is about the success and achievement of starfish in a world that seems to be dominated by spider organizations.
Enjoy the book, study the stories, use Brafman's and Beckstrom's "Five legs of the Starfish" as design parameters for your organizations, your work and your life. Though arguably as old as the tribal way of life, this way of organizing is still young in terms of formal research and mainstream attention. There is much room to mature the concepts and to become part of the ongoing emergence that is clearly being powered by the capacity of Web and wireless communications to link us all together. Enjoy the journey. It can be wonderful, rewarding, long-term child's play!
Gail Taylor, Tomorrow Makers, Inc....more info
- A revolutionary premise with paradigm-shifting potential
This work is one of those inspired, "big idea" books that simply has to be read if you want to stay current with the progression of modern business thought. Soundview enthusiastically recommends the book - The Starfish and the Spider - because it truly has paradigm-shifting potential for any organization bold enough to embrace its message. The authors use the metaphors of a spider and a starfish to describe the differences between centralized and decentralized organizations. In the book, a spider models a centralized organization with its eight separate legs that are controlled and span outward from a central point, which is its body. But if you cut off the spider's head, the entire structure - legs and body - stop ceasing, which mirrors similar circumstances and outcomes of a centralized organization. Conversely, a starfish is a neural matrix that lacks a formal brain (so to speak) and has major organs duplicated across each appendage. So if any part of it gets severed or if it gets cut in half - it continues to live. The writers postulate that the best organizations of the future will blend the best attributes of both models. While critics say the comparisons of low-life, living organisms with complex, non-living organizations is a stretch, you don't have to agree with the authors' premise to still stretch your mind and perceptions of how organizations are structured. ...more info
- Loss for Leadership
This book gives you hope that there is a way to influence change in our society on a small but vast scale. I found the author's examples fascinating and, more importantly replicable. It's a quick read and keeps your attention. It would be a great text for sociology students or organizational behaviorists -- Steve...more info
- New awareness and New action
I read this book in one plane trip from the UK to the USA. When I got off the flight I ordered copies for every member of the management team. This is an eye openining book that has given me many ideas for the future of our organisation and our global network. ...more info
- Well Written, Insightful
This was a good book; well researched, entertaining and insightful. Brafman's conversational writing style and relevant historical references made this a great weekend read....more info
An interesting book on interesting subject.
Decentralization literature is not new, but the author uses a diversified set of examples.
However, most examples used for successful starfish (decentralized) organizations are not profit making companies, such as emule and craigslist.
Still, the book will definitely make you look at organizations and industries in a different way. ...more info
- A must-read for those in ministry
A must-read for leaders in ministry.
In his comparison of the characteristic differences between a CEO and a Catalyst, Ori Brafman lays out the differences between starting a movement and controlling an enterprise. Between leading by example and managing. In the same way that leading is different than managing, centralized and decentralized organizations are different.
Much can be said for the differences between a hierarchical, centralized organization and a decentralized organization. About the differences of theory and application. About how they operate. About levels of resiliency and strategies to combat one or the other. But just because much can be said does not mean that one is not necessarily better than the other.
We need to understand those differences and how they can be fleshed out in the Kingdom of God. There is a place in the Kingdom for order, structure, accountability, and security. At the same time, there is a place for creativity, empowerment, and the relationship of the individual to God, the Community of Saints, and the community surrounding.
It is the structure of an centralized organization that can provide security, order, consistency, and accountability. But it is the apparent disorder of a decentralized organization that creates the resiliency that we see in the New Testament Church. As spiritual leaders, we must be aware of the dynamics of our organizations as well as hear from God as we serve our communities.The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations...more info
- Must read for anyone guiding a group, business or organization
This excellent book described the difference between centralized and decentralized organizations, the benefits and challenges of both, and offered hybrid possibilities to maximize energies in the 21 century.
The book is well written, filled with stories and examples and easy to translate into a variety of organizations. ...more info
- an organizational behavior book for bloggers and green berets
Simply a great book.
Brafman and Beckstrom make a very compelling case for decentralization in organizations, businesses, causes, and life. They contrast the spider (top-down management) with the starfish (which is essentially headless ... all its "legs" go in any direction it wants to ... but the starfish still moves and is effective).
The book discusses the management techniques of wikipedia, craigslist, al Qaeda, the blogosphere, and more. Though these are first time authors, I found the book mimics the unique observations of someone like Malcolm Gladwell.
Overall: the book packs a big impact ... especially given that it is short and I was able to read it in one cross-country trip. It will certainly changed the way we thought about managing our organization. ...more info
The premise of this book is great. It's basically a leadership book which is a genre I've grown to hate with it's flash-in-the-pan theories and "laws". The idea being that organizations become unstoppable when they decentralize because the load gets shared and carried by all instead of a few. There was a lot of Web 2.0 stuff in there with the history of Craigslist, Wikipedia, p2p Sharing, etc. But it really got me thinking about the potential the church could have as a decentralized organization. The overall idea of the book was great. The only negatives being that it still felt like a book on leadership i.e. something that John Maxwell would write. And technically they say the same things over and over again after about 75 pages. But the general idea of decentralizing and p2p sharing and open-source have been influencing me greatly in my thinking on the economy and ecclessiology. Definitely worth a read....more info
- How to Understand and Respond to a Radically Changing World
Great, quick read with useful examples of how centralized, command and control organizations can fail by assuming that engagement with distributed (or "cloud-based") entities can follow the same rules as engagement with other command and control organizations. I have cited this book frequently in recent presentations...more info
- Why popularizing books should end up on college syllabi
Academic technology organizations are "starfishes" - in that authority and knowledge are distributed - and that we are mission driven. Recommended to anyone who thinks about organizational effectiveness. This book fits beautifully within the genre of short works that communicate serious academic research by telling interesting stories and providing fascinating examples. We don't assign enough books like this in our college courses - thinking that since is a "popularizing" book it must therefore be "inferior". I'm starting to think that we've been too snobby....and that in privileging good writing and storytelling over total academic rigor we may be inhibiting our students from absorbing the central points. ...more info
- Cindy Sheehan' Starfish Moment
Cindy Sheehan is leaving the anti-war movement to which she gave so much life, energy, and focus. She will be back, no doubt, in some form. I wish her well in restoring herself and renewing her own life. But I firmly disagree (and this is a blue-moon moment) with William R. Pitt that "Anyone glad for her departure from activism is celebrating a disaster."
While I doubt I'd use the word "glad" to describe my own feelings, certainly "relieved" qualifies. At any rate, in no way does "disaster" describe this moment. Quite the contrary: this woman endured everything from divorce to death threats to arrest to public taunting and ridicule from the mass media; it is time she retreated and renewed.
There is also a broader theme to this, which I am going to explain with a book review. Yes, a book review. The book is The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations. The authors are Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, and they have written one of the most crystalline gems of social insight that I have seen in any non-fiction these past 20 years. In a mere 200 pages of text, these two Stanford grads provide more clarity of perspective on our society, its group psychologies and cultural transformations, than you are likely to get from a shelf full of punditry or a year's worth of television. I do not think I am overstating the case for this book: it is the most important and clarion piece of non-fiction to arise in this first decade of the 21st century. It is a book made for, and by, its era.
The metaphor of the title is a comparison of "top-down", hierarchically-structured groups and organizations, such as we are all familiar with in corporate America and government (that's the spider, who can be made lame from the loss of its legs and dead from decapitation); and the fresh wave of decentralized, leaderless, or non-hierarchical organizations that have become such a force in society over the past decade of the Internet (this is the "starfish," which can be chopped up into numerous pieces, each of which will respond by growing a new organism or member).
The book opens with a heady analysis of how a starfish phenomenon evolved in one particular category: the P2P file sharing services in the Napster/Grokster model. The authors show how the early versions of these spontaneous organizations got stuck in "spider" mode, and were therefore eventually trapped and killed by big corporate media and its legal juggernaut. But these Napster-type experiments benefited from such attacks by a response of ever-increasing differentiation, diversification, and "starfish"-style regrowth. Brafman and Beckstrom finally lead the reader to the eMule service, which took decentralization to the point of anonymity and total leaderlessness. Big Media cannot attack an entity like eMule, because it has no head, no governance, no bank accounts: there is nothing for a legal or corporate machine to assault, except for individual users of the service, who, aside from being virtually innumerable, are mostly children and rarely wealthy.
The authors go on to reveal both the beauty and the danger inherent in the starfish-mode of organizational being, drawing examples as diverse as Wikipedia and al Qaeda. Along the way, they present portraits of environmental groups, activist organizations, online merchants, and Internet services. But if this book stopped with mere sketches of eBay, Alcoholics Anonymous, Apache, craigslist, Goodwill Industries, and IBM, then it would be merely an interesting intellectual snack for the MBA crowd.
The Starfish and the Spider becomes a banquet of cultural insight because it digs past the surface that so many pundits and social commentators stop to admire. Brafman and Beckstrom turn the starfish on its back, examine it in varying light, carry it into vastly disparate environments, and constantly ask questions of it. In doing so, they discover some principles and characteristics common to starfish organizations and the people who inspire and influence their growth.
One of their most fascinating discoveries is in the figure of what they term "the catalyst." It is here that we are brought back to Cindy Sheehan (this is my own connection, so if you think it's a stupid association, don't blame the authors of the book). The catalyst is the person who founds a starfish group, the one who gives it form, ideas, value, focus, and meaning. Examples of catalysts that Brafman and Beckstrom offer are:
# Granville Sharp, leader of the abolitionist movement against slavery in England
# Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who founded the women's suffrage movement that Susan B. Anthony later took up with still greater energy
# Craig Newmark of craigslist
# Bill Wilson of AA
One thing the authors point out is that
a catalyst is like the architect of a house: he's essential to the long-term structural integrity, but he doesn't move in. In fact, when the catalyst stays around too long and becomes absorbed in his creation, the whole structure becomes more centralized.
So one common feature to the life and health of a growing decentralized movement or organization is that the catalyst almost always leaves or at least recedes into the mesh of the whole, once the group has matured enough to work autonomously and to withstand assault. Whenever a catalyst attempts to assume a traditional, CEO-type of leadership role, the organization loses its dynamism, its life as a starfish, and becomes a centralized, hierarchical spider--much easier to mark, and then suppress or assimilate.
For a corporate entity, this may not necessarily be a bad thing: growth-as-profit, after all, can be nurtured in a traditional corporate management structure. But growth-as-message can become stilled or silenced when there's a top dog in place, approving this, denying that; or simply being a figurehead in a particular place as the focus of activism or just attention.
The anti-war movement has benefited enormously from Cindy Sheehan's presence, personality, experience, and energy. We have admired her from afar for some two years now: I first wrote about her here (note also that the fractiousness and in-fighting that Sheehan noted in her parting statement existed way back then, too).
Since then, however, the movement has grown, thanks largely to Sheehan's example and leadership. But I agree with Brafman and Beckstrom, that a time inevitably comes for every starfish organization when its formative human force must retreat. In our own democracy's formative stage, George Washington had to decline the crown that his followers attempted to place on his head. Other catalysts have had to spurn a crown or a corner office, and always for the good of the whole, for the sake of the movement's continued growth.
Since Sheehan first camped out in George Bush's backyard, Code Pink, IVAW, and hundreds of other "starfish arms and legs" have formed around her and taken on their own life in the anti-war sea. It is time that these organisms were allowed to share in both the light and the tribulation, the accolades and the calumny.
The blogosphere--itself a starfish organization--has benefited from Sheehan's influence and example. I think she recognizes this as well, and thus chose Daily Kos as the forum for her parting message. It is perhaps only seemingly ironic that the world wide web is perhaps the least "spidery" vehicle of communication on earth today. Only on the Internet, for example, could you find a science writer for a stodgy paper like the New York Times writing a scathing indictment of the Bush administration--it happened today.
As Brafman and Beckstrom point out in their book, this kind of seeming chaos is unique to a starfish-style organization: "When you give people freedom, you get chaos, but you also get incredible creativity." Even on the website of a spider organization like the New York Times.
Clearly, we probably need more chaos; and we certainly need more creativity. Congress has failed to carry out the will of the people, because it cannot respond to the fluid movement of the starfish; it is too mired in its own iron-stranded matrix of excess, corruption, deceit, and self-indulgence. As the authors of The Starfish and the Spider indicate, we can only overcome the turgid inertia of Washington politics by redoubling the starfish energy of the anti-war movement. In other words, it is time for a catalyst to step into the background, so that the whole is given renewed life. And so that a long-suffering and heroic Mom can once more feel the quiet joys of private life that the rest of us so often take for granted.
posted by Brian Donohue @ 5/31/2007...more info
- Starfish? Spiders? Great Insight? Yes, its all here.
Starfish are great creatures. They crawl around and eat things, but do little else. Or, so one would think. The authors detail the uniqueness of starfish. In process, they detail how the attributes of these creatures metaphorically describe successful decentralized organizations. The principle is that there is no centralized control center in either leaderless organizations, or starfish. As a result, both are able to adapt to changes that would normally threaten other mechanisms. This is a lesson many organizations should learn because it allows them to adapt to a world that details little stability. All in all, a readable book with great insight. ...more info