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The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations
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Understanding the amazing force that links some of today's most successful companies

If 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.

Customer Reviews:

  • 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
  • Seek not stardom, just starfishdom
    Whether or not you care about leaderless, borderless and/or decentralized organizations, labeled as starfish organizations, they probably affect your life in some way or another whether you have downloaded music or avoided it, dealt with PETA, looked up something in Wikipedia, had actions of al-Qaeda affect your life in some way like stricter restrictions at the airports, etc. In that sense, you might as well get to know something about them to make better use of them or be prepared to deal with them effectively when you have to. If you read this book, you will likely not just want to know or know more about them, but get involved to see what they're all about or get more involved.

    Written from both an overview and hands-on approach, this book is not only useful as a reference but also as a manual on the issue. The book identified the qualities of starfish organizations and what makes them effective, how anyone and everyone could start, sustain and/or get involved in these organizations, the types of people key to such organizations and how to combat them if you're on the other side. The book also warns about the constant change involved with maintaining starfish organizations and how to deal with them. Guidelines are offered and useful real life examples illustrate them to bring to life what otherwise be just concepts.

    I had two small criticisms about the book, but nothing major enough to deter it from getting the five star rating I felt it deserved. First was that a few more real life examples of starfish organizations and/or their actions could have been chosen to illustrate some of the points made. There were plenty of diverse examples, but so many more abound as I read and thought about traits and qualities of starfish organizations that if mentioned, readers would realize even more influence starfish organizations have had in their lives. Second was that it did not address how government could use this book to decentralize since decentralization could be so powerful but yet government is the epitomy of centralization. I work for government, and felt government badly needed this, but had to think it through myself to come up with uses for attracting colleagues to my Starfish and Spider for Lunch (and Learn) voluntary book review session. When I did, though, not only was I excited at the possibilities, but also at the challenge to try to convince senior management of this, although that will take time. I will contact the authors to address this issue in a follow-up companion, perhaps, as they are the experts on this, but if nothing else, my ability to customize an application to government should tell you something about the book's effectiveness as a manual.

    Overall, for the excellent writing style, clarity, impact and general application to the masses, five starfish!...more info
  • 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.
    ...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!

    ...more info
  • Power to the People
    My initial interest in the book was a result of an accident. I stumbled upon a television program where 2 guys in suits are being interviewed in a park. The comparisons between a Starfish and I spider compelled me to purchase the book. Simply stated, The Starfish and the Spider is an excellent book.

    Management styles and corporate culture are not spellbinding topics, however the authors present the subject matter clearly with historical and present day references. I use Craigslist and could easily relate to the sense of community.

    This book is a must read for those in business brick n' mortar or an internet based; for those with a desire to understand how a college student, with an idea for sharing music, brought an industry to it's knees....more info
  • Very enjoyable read
    The title of the book comes from the analogous use of the starfish and the spider. A spider has eight legs coming out of a central body. It has a tiny head and eight eyes. If you cut off the spider's head, it dies. It may survive without a leg or two or even stand to lose a couple of eyes, but it certainly can't live without its head.

    On the other hand, while a starfish may appear to be similar to the central body and multiple legs of the spider, it is really quite 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, the animal won't die and pretty soon you'll have two starfish.

    The authors provide an entertaining description of the starfish system:

    "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. You can cut the Linckia into a bunch of pieces, and each one will regenerate into a whole new starfish. 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. The arm starts moving and then - in a process that no one fully understands - the other arms cooperate and move as well. The brain doesn't "yea" or "nay" the decision. In truth, there isn't even a brain to declare a "yea" or "nay." The starfish doesn't have a brain. There is no central command. Biologists are still scratching their heads over how this creature operates."

    With the analogy firmly in place the authors precede to illustrate the power of decentralized organizations in today's internet savvy world (using examples as varied as eBay, al Qaeda, eMule, Craigslist, AA, and Wikipedia) with those that are much more centralized. In the midst of this discussion they offer six principles of decentralization:

    1. When attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more open and decentralized.

    2. It's 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.

    But how does one go about identifying a Starfish organization? The answer is found in asking the right questions:

    1. Is there a person in charge?

    2. Are there headquarters?

    3. If you thump it on the head, will it die?

    4. Is there a clear division of roles?

    5. If you take out a unit, is the organization harmed?

    6. Are knowledge & power concentrated or distributed?

    7. Is the organization flexible or rigid?

    8. Can you count the employees or participants?

    9. Are working groupls funded by the organization, or are they self-funding?

    10. Do working groups communicate directly or through intermediaries?

    The authors contend that 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. These "legs" include:

    Leg 1. Circles. Small, nonhierarchical groups of people with each group maintaining its own particular habits and norms.

    Leg 2. The Catalyst. The person who initiates a circle and then fades away into the background.

    Leg 3. Ideology. The glue that holds decentralized organizations together.

    Leg 4. A Preexisting Network. Infrastructure or preexisting platform to launch from.

    Leg 5. A Champion. A relentless promoter of the new idea.

    One of the most helpful aspects of this portion of the book comes in a chapter titled "The Hidden Power of the Catalyst." The following chart summarizes the different tools that the CEO and catalysts type of leader draws upon:

    CEO vs. Catalyst

    The Boss -- A Peer
    Command & Control -- Trust
    Powerful -- Inspirational
    Directive -- Collaborative
    In the Spotlight -- Behind the Scenes
    Order -- Ambiguity
    Organizing -- Connecting

    The authors conclude this chapter by stating:

    "This type of leadership isn't ideal for all situations. Catalysts are bound to rock the boat. They are much better at being agents of change than guardians of tradition. Catalysts do well in situations that call for radical change and creative thinking. They bring innovation, but they're also likely to create a certain amount of chaos and ambiguity. Put them into a structured environment, and they might suffocate. But let them dream and they'll thrive." (can anyone say "church planter")

    In the final chapter the authors offer what they perceive to be the "new rules to the game" in regards to understanding and capitalizing on the power of decentralized organizations:

    Rule 1: Dis-economies of Scale

    Traditionally, the bigger the company or institution the greater the power. However, as counterintuitive as this sounds, it can be better to be small. . . . We have entered a new world where being small can provide a fundamental economic advantage.

    Rule 2: The Network Effect

    The network effect is the increase in the overall value of the network with the addition of each new member. "Often without spending a dime, starfish organizations create communities where each new member adds value to the larger network. . . . Companies like eBay have used the network effect not only to survive but to thrive: buyers and sellers have stayed loyal to the site because of the value of 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. Institute order and rigid structure, and while you may achieve standardization, you'll also squelch creativity. Where creativity is valuable, learning to accept chaos is a must.

    Rule 4: Knowledge at the Edge

    In starfish organizations, knowledge is spread throughout the organization. Wikipedia may be the best example of this rule.

    Rule 5: Everyone Wants to Contribute

    Not only do people throughout a starfish have knowledge, but they also have a fundamental desire to share and to contribute. Once again is the example of Wikipedia or free book reviews on Amazon.

    Rule 6: Beware the Hydra Response

    Attack a decentralized organization and you'll soon be reminded of Hydra, the many-headed beast of Greek mythology. If you cut off one head, two more will grow in its place.

    Rule 7: Catalysts Rule

    Catalysts are crucial to decentralized organizations! But it is not because they are in control but because they inspire people to action.

    Rule 8: The Values are the Organization

    Idology is the fuel that drives the decentralized organization. Most successful starfish organizations were started with what seemed at the time to be a radical ideology.

    Rule 9: Measure, Monitor, and Manage

    Just because starfish organizations tend to be ambiguous and chaotic doesn't mean that their results can't be measured. But when measuring a decentralized network, it's better to "be vaguely right than precisely wrong." Even if we could, it wouldn't really matter if we were able to get a precise count of how many members are in a network. What matters more is looking at circles. How active are they? How distributed is the network?

    Rule 10: Flatten or Be Flattened

    There are ways to fight a decentralized organization. We can change members' ideology or try to centralize the organization. But often the best hope for survival if we can't beat them is to join them.

    ...more info
  • A fun book with a good message . . . but perhaps a misleading subtitle
    I really enjoyed reading this book - it was definitely fun, and fast. The authors use strong metaphors to capture and illustrate their ideas. It can be helpful in thinking about organizational culture and values. I will say, though, that the "leaderless organizations" aspect of the subtitle isn't exactly accurate to what the authors argue. In fact, they spend a lot of time talking about the importance of catalytic leaders. And while their view of a catalyst isn't a typical CEO/centralized power kind of person, they still argue about the critical role a catalyst plays. I'm left wondering if the subtitle was the authors' idea or the publisher's....more info
  • Mandatory Reading for Every Leader
    This book is an eye opener as to how people organize and create tremendous impact without a directive "leader." If is were manadatory reading for every elected official, they would learn that force (like war) will not eliminate undesireable actions by others.

    Brilliant insights into the causes of much of what we see in the world today. To learn three core principles underlying "starfish" leadership that can be used in any organization, I invite you to read my book: Leadership in Service to Life
    ...more info
  • An excellent read for any leader
    The title of this book is accurate, but somewhat misleading. I admit that I purchased the book with some trepidation because I am a strong proponent of the value of strong leadership in any organizational structure.

    "Starfish" isn't an apologetic for leaderless organizations as much as it is an expose'. The authors carefully take you through "what" a leaderless organization actually is and outline its history, uniqueness and provide real-life examples of various incarnations that will certainly be familiar to every reader. Most of us have experienced (or even participated) in these organizations whether we consciously realize it or not. But the authors (wisely) fall short of making hard recommendations and leave it to the reader to decide what impact this new genre of organization will bring. I suspect the dialog will be on-going.

    If you are a leader who likes to stay on the leading edge and is at ease with thinking outside of your comfortable parameters, then you will enjoy this book. It is informative, yet easy to read and always interesting in its presentation of the content.

    I found "Starfish" to be educational, provoking, challenging and confronting. I'm witting this review as a result of being inspired from the book to participate in a decentralized effort! Enjoy!...more info
  • A facinating read
    If you liked, Blink and, The Tipping Point you are going to love, The Starfish and the Spider! I found it to be very insightful and informative, and, for anyone in the world of business it truly makes you re-think the structure of your organization and the power that is inherent in the "grassroots". I have been recommending it to everyone I know ... best book I have read in months! ...more info
  • Little more than a white paper
    I thought the subject matter of the book was timely, important and accurate. I enjoyed the thoroughness of the analysis and comparisons of leaderless versus typical organizations. However, that's where the book really ends. There's no real actionable data for leaders to take back to their companies, only the argument of what they are up against.

    I would love to read a Part 2 to this book that completes the cycle. That is, how modern companies can utilize these patterns to their advantage to grow in the market place. I think there are extremely valid applications of this. One example that stands out is Salesforce and AppExchange.

    By developing Apex and adding a marketplace (AppExchange) for third party development, Salesforce is expanding its footprint and innovating through organizations they may never have previously had a relationship with....more info
  • Great Insight Into Understanding Leaderless Organizations.

    This book compares a decentralized (leaderless) organization to a centralized one, how to recognize one, and how they operate within our society through the analogy of the starfish and a spider. A starfish, when its legs are cut off will just grow new legs or the leg may grow into an entirely new starfish. This is decentralization. A spider, which has a head (centralized) can easily be killed by chopping off the head. These two analogies are compared in the book to eBay, GM, Al Qaeda, AA, Craigslist and others.

    The authors believe that in order to identify a "Starfish" organization, 10 questions must be answered. Some are:

    1. Is there a person in charge?
    2. Are there headquarters?
    3. If you thump it on the head, will it die?
    4. Is there a clear division of roles?
    5. If you take out a unit, is the organization harmed?
    . . . and others.

    In identifying the "Starfish" organization, the key to understanding its makeup is to know it's "5 Legs". These are:

    1. Circles. Many smaller groups of people with each group maintaining its own particular habits and norms.
    2. The Catalyst. The person who initiates a circle.
    3. Ideology. The common glue that holds the circle and organization together
    4. A Preexisting Network. Infrastructure to launch from.
    5. A Champion. A relentless promoter of the new idea.

    These "Starfish" organizations also follow 10 certain patterns or Rules. Some are:

    1. Diseconomies of Scale. Small size combined with a large network give flexibility and power.
    2. The Network Effect. The increase in the overall value of the network with addition of new members.
    3. The Power of Chaos. Anything goes. Good ideas attract more people.
    4. Beware the Hydra Response. If you cut off one head, two more will grow in its place.

    I enjoyed this book, and it is worth the read even for a casual reader. At times this book reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" although I liked that book better (since I'm comparing). But that doesn't mean this book is bad. It is not. It is easy to read and follow and provides great insight into these types of organizations.
    ...more info
  • Peter NYC
    This book is great. A must read for those interested in being flexible and evolving. Has important applications across multiple work environments. ...more info
  • Shift your thinking
    The world is full of successful starfish orgs. The spiders are shriveling away. Learn or become a relic...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
  • Starts out good, but falls flat
    Unlike his other book "the perfect mess" this book starts out with strong and very good ideas, but then progressively gets worse as you flip the pages.

    The author has about 3 good examples in the book, but keep reiterating the same points he covered at the begining of the book. The final 3 chapters felt like a last attempt to fill the book with pages.

    Skip this book if you read "the perfect mess". Get it if you've never seen the other book....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
  • Decentralized organizations
    Brafman and Beckstrom argue that centralized organizations are more like spiders (cut off the head and the spider dies) whereas decentralized (leaderless) organizations are like starfish that, when injured or partially dismembered can regenerate themselves. Instead of leaders, decentralized organizations have catalysts, persons who put forth a compelling idea The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think and help get a movement started, then step aside and allow the "grass roots" to do their thing. Starting a decentralized organization can be evolutionary (e.g., Alcholics Anonymous, abolition of slavery) or revolutionary (e.g., Internet, Napster). The authors identify eight principles that characterize decentralized organizations and differentiate them from centralized ones. For example, "when attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more open and decentralized" whereas "when attacked, centralized organizations tend to become even more centralized". This is a provocative book that will cause the reader to think seriously about the weakness of centralized organizations and the strength of decentralized ones. Well worth reading....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
  • A facinating read
    If you liked, Blink and, The Tipping Point you are going to love, The Starfish and the Spider! I found it to be very insightful and informative, and, for anyone in the world of business it truly makes you re-think the structure of your organization and the power that is inherent in the "grassroots". I have been recommending it to everyone I know ... best book I have read in months! ...more info
  • Useful introduction, but there's more ...
    It took me some time to warm to this book. Nothing much happens in the initial 80 pages. The first chapter develops two fairly tortuous case studies - the vicissitudes of fortune in the recording industry in the last decade and the struggle of the Apaches against the Spanish invaders - to introduce the theme of the book. Then follows a discussion of the morphology of decentralised organisations (in terms of power distribution, funding, etc). Chapter 3 illustrates these formal characteristics with a series of examples, ranging from Skype over Wikipedia to Burning Man. There is honestly not a lot of meat to chew on in these first chapters and some patience is required from the reader.

    It becomes more interesting in Chapter 4 where Brafman and Beckstrom discuss operational principles behind decentralised organisations (the need for pre-existing networks as a substrate, the role of catalysts and champions to activate leaderless organisation, "circles" as their chief co-ordination mechanism, and "ideology" as the glue holding everything more or less together). The role of the catalyst as a "servant leader" (term, however, not used by the authors) is further elaborated in the fifth chapter.

    In chapter 6, the discussion turns to the question "What do you do, as an incumbent, when you are under fire from a starfish?" It transpires that there is not an awful lot to be done: you can try to morph them into a spider by activating internal cancer cells (greed and competition), you can try to dissolve or change the glue, the ideology that keeps the structure together or you can join them and become decentralised too (then it's starfish against starfish).

    Brafman and Beckstrom maintain that it is not always necessary to go all the way and radically decentralise. There is such thing as a "hybrid" organisation (Chapter 7), which mixes principles of centralisation and decentralisation. Here the discussion suddenly gets denser and this is a part of the book that warrants repeated reading. A distinction is made between centralised organisations that give customers a voice (eBay with its peer-to-peer feedback is an example), those that put their customers to work (IBM developing open source applications) and those that decentralise parts of their internal structure. Towards the end of the chapter, however, the discussion peters out. "Appreciative Enquiry" is invoked as an approach to bring a whiff of decentralisation into companies who want to hang on to their centralised bureaucracies. It's a dangerous example that may tempt people into crass opportunism (that is, however, bound to backfire on them).

    Finally, the authors hypothesise that in a given ecosystem there is no static equilibrium in terms of right mix of centralised/decentralised characteristics ("right" in terms of securing survival and the ability to extract economic rent). The "sweet spot" changes as a function of time, sometimes dramatically so. The desire for anonymity and the free flow of information are forces that push towards the decentralisation end, whilst the desire for security and accountability pull the system back to a more centralised mode of operation.

    The book closes with a short epilogue that lists 10 simple guiding principles to make the most out of decentralised organisations or to defend yourself from their attacks.

    On the whole, I enjoyed this book. It provides an intelligent and accessible discussion of a complex issue. With respect to the latter, the authors do a laudable job in keeping thing simple, but sometimes it's over the top. Particularly in the first halve of the book, their penchant for telling anecdotes and stories makes them err on the side of the trivial (a discussion on Wikipedia starts with "we all remember doing school reports in the sixth grade. Back then, research meant going to the library and hoping the that the Encyclopaedia Brittanica wasn't checked out ... and so on, and so on.) I was irked more than once by the patronising and befuddling prose of Brafman & Beckstrom. Admittedly, sometimes they hit it right. The title of the book, for example, is a very strong and aptly chosen metaphor for decentralised and centralised organisations, respectively.

    Also I believe this book does not exhaust the potential of this fascinating subject matter. I think the discussion would have gained significantly in clarity and power if only a number of well known systems science principles (such as Ashby's Law of Requisity Variety, see Introduction to Cybernetics (University Paperbacks)) had been invoked to give the whole discussion a rock solid footing. I also missed a solid link to the burgeoning literature on the P2P movement. It is clear that the issue of property rights in central in making leaderless organisations work (Brafman discusses this as a way to sabotage starfish only) and people like Lawrence Lessig ("Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity) and Yochai Benkler ("The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom") have a lot to say about these issues.

    A small point, but a fairly irritating one, is the use of the word "ideology" in the book. The authors ostensibly use this to refer to any set of beliefs that underpin a decentralised organisation. From my point of view, the word "ideology" refers to a more elaborate and closed system of abstract thought (and as such has a pejorative tinge to it). Many starfish (also amongst those mentioned in the book) thrive on a much more vague and fluid set of beliefs, norms and values. It's worthwhile to be more nuanced about this.

    Morally speaking, the book leaves the reader in suspension. From an internal point of view, leaderless organisations are unquestionably superior - morally and aesthetically - to centralised organisations, not only because of their structural simplicity and elegance, but also because they rely so openly on trust (in my opinion THE key word in the book), on the belief that man is fundamentally good and ultimately because they are capable of drawing the best from people and providing them with truthfulness, meaning and purpose in their life. Problem is that not only Alcoholics Anonymous operates as a decentralised organisation, but Al Qaeda does too. So starfish can server all kinds of purposes, some more constructive than others. It all depends which side you're on....more info
  • Everyone Should Read This Book
    Every politician,military, business, religious, everyone else should read this book. Understanding the concept of decentralized organizations is necessary to our survival. The subtitle, "the Unstopplable Power of Leaderless Organizations " is misleading as the book does outline how to stop decentralized organizations but also how difficult it is. The authors make it easy to understand this complex type of organization using several examples (why the Apache could defeat the Spanish, the success of AA,al Qaeda,women's right to vote movement,abolitionists,and more).
    Once again read the book, get others to read it. Understanding decentralized organizations is necessary to our democratic way of life and success in life and business....more info
  • a helpful look at network-based decentralization
    The Starfish and the Spider offers an intriguing, if somewhat superficial, look at the differences between centralized and decentralized, or "leaderless," organizations. Spanning the time period from the early European conquest of the Americas (and why the Spanish could defeat the Aztecs but not the Apaches) to today's terrorist threats and Internet-based movements, the authors provide useful principles to characterize the two types of organizations and offer insights on effects such as the centralizing of power in American government following 9/11. While the book could benefit more from an underlying theoretical analysis of these organization types, the authors present a compelling argument for why many organizations should go "hybrid" and adopt the power of both the starfish and the spider. As a CIO this helped me better understand many Internet social movements of today, and as a university administrator I found this very pertinent to life in a decentralized organization....more info
  • An intriguing report on how "leaderless organizations" often outperform conventional ones.
    In 1946, after intensive research, Peter Drucker wrote Concept of the Corporation, a study of decentralization at General Motors. Drucker's book had a profound influence on the business world, particularly on Japanese auto manufacturers, such as Toyota, which incorporated many of his ideas into its operations with great success. Flash forward to 2006, when Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom wrote this pivotal book about "leaderless organizations." Their insightful analysis concerns the remarkable organizational revolution under way as hierarchies (spider entities) give way to decentralization (starfish entities). The fundamental tension between these two forces remains a pivotal dynamic in business. Today's decentralization movement makes awareness even more critical. GM failed to learn from Drucker's book. This turned out to be a huge mistake. We recommend: Do not make the same mistake with this important book; it should not be ignored. ...more info
  • A great book for non-denominationalism
    This book was great in the highest sense of great. A great book is one that has thoughtful material as well as it being well written. This book is both. It talks about the push to decentralize organizations and the beauty or influence that these organizations are able to have. It is a great defense for the church being non-denominational. Personally, I saw a lot of parallels to non-denominationalism in the book. It is not a church book, but speaks loudly to a church world. That the church should be a organization that is more like the starfish than the spider. In fact, you see the first century church functioning like the organizations that are highlighted. I highly recommend this book, one of the best books of the year for me....more info
  • Give Work Meaning
    Patrick Lencioni's latest book may be the best book yet about the PositiveWare tagline, Give Work Meaning.

    Fortunately, this is also his best book period. Unlike the fantasy nature of "Five Mistakes of A CEO", this is also patterned as a fable, and yet is totally believable.

    Our hero, Brian Bailey, is a CEO who sells a company. In the sale of his company he finds that the acquirer and the banker do not place a lot of value in his belief that it his people that have made the difference in building the company.

    Upon his retirement as a golf and ski bum in Tahoe and a subsequent ski injury he finds himself bored and depressed and looking for something to do. He becomes part owner of an Italian food restaurant that has seen better days. He is motivated to do this because the employees in this restaurant appear to hate their jobs, and aren't very good at them. "How do these people get out of bed and come to work every day" he asks himself. In other words, what gives their work meaning?

    Using the restaurant as his own management laboratory, he finds that the answer lies in three simple ideas: Immeasurement, Irrelevance, and Anonymity.

    Immeasurement is the idea that there is no measure for success for a person's work, and/or that the measure is not timely or under the person's control.

    Irrelevance is the idea that a person's work is not important to another person.

    Anonymity is the idea that an employee doesn't have personal relationships at work.

    The solution is to create daily measures, identify your customer in the business and care about your employees.

    The challenging part of this recipe is the cure for anonymity, which involves asking managers to become personally interested and care about their employees. This means a lot of discomfort for HR managers, who are used to forbidding personal questions as part of the interview process, but must relax that stricture on a post-hire basis....more info
  • 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