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Book Review – The Starfish and the Spider – John Tulinsky

by on November 11, 2007

Book Review: Brafman, O.; Beckstrom, R.A. (2006). The Starfish and the Spider. The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations. New York: Portfolio.

The title, The Starfish and the Spider, is based on the observation that starfish and spiders are both multi-limbed creatures. While the two animals are superficially similar, a spider has a central nervous system and brain; if you cut off its head it dies. In contrast the organs of a starfish are equally distributed throughout its body; if you cut off a leg the body regenerates a new leg, and the leg in turn grows into a new starfish. This analogy is used to illustrate the concept of decentralized, or starfish, organizations. The authors begin the book by providing several examples of decentralized organizations, including open-source software, peer-to-peer file sharing and the Apache Indian tribe. However, the most striking illustration of the principle is the organization Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which has helped millions of people to recover from alcoholism over the past 70 years. One reason for the success of AA is its decentralized structure. AA bases its treatment of alcoholism on the twelve step program but other than this single requirement AA chapters are free to choose their own policies and practices. Rather than a hierarchical structure local chapters are made up of groups of peers who share in all decisions. The structure of AA provides an excellent illustration of a decentralized organization.

A decentralized organization is characterized by these ten properties (pp 46-53):

  • There is no single person in charge
  • There are no headquarters: decentralized organizations don’t depend on a specific physical location
  • Decentralized organizations do not depend on a single leader. All members of the organization are equally empowered and it will survive the loss of any individual
  • There is no clear division of roles; anyone can do anything
  • The organization can survive the loss of any individual unit
  • Knowledge and power are not concentrated but instead are distributed throughout the organization
  • Decentralized organizations are amorphous and fluid
  • It is difficult or impossible to accurately count the number of members of a decentralized organization
  • The units of a decentralized organization tend to be autonomous and self-funding
  • In decentralized organizations communication occurs directly between all group members

The first half of the book is devoted to comparing and contrasting centralized organizations and decentralized organizations. Although decentralized organizations are non-hierarchical the authors emphasize the importance of an individual catalyst who initiates the organization. The role of the catalyst is first to provide an ideology and then to build the circle of the organization by connecting the proper people, and then stepping aside and not interfering as the organization develops. One of the catalysts described in the book is Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia. He is a hyper-networker, which is typical of the many different catalysts described in the book. The importance of networking is emphasized again and again in many different forums and it clearly is part of the success of Wikipedia. However, there are decentralized organizations, such as Craig’s List, that have grown in a more organic fashion. I can’t help but think that there’s an element of randomness at work. There’s no doubt that knowing the right people is invaluable but many of the cases examined in the book strike me as examples of hitting the right intersection of technological change and social attitudes. That is, being in the right place at the right time, something that’s very important but not necessarily easy to predict or duplicate!

An important point that the authors make is that decentralized organizations are generally built on top of a pre-existing network. An example of this principle is the anti-slavery movement in the 19th century. The first abolitionists collaborated with the Quakers in their efforts to fight slavery. The pre-existing Quaker network facilitated these efforts and allowed the movement to rapidly grow. The internet is currently the most important platform for decentralized organizations. The internet facilitates the formation of organizations at very low cost and is the primary reason why decentralized organizations are a much larger force than they were 10 years ago and why they continue to grow in importance.

Successful decentralized organizations are disruptive and have already had dramatic effects on major companies and industries. Open-source software is a leading example. Companies such as Sun and IBM have shifted their business model because of open-source. Apache is the dominant web server software, displacing products from Netscape and Microsoft. Other examples include the effect of music-sharing on music label revenues, Skype’s disruption of telecommunications and Craig’s List near-complete replacement of newspaper classified advertisements.

The approach adopted by Sun and IBM—a dramatically-changed business model—is one way to deal with the encroachment of a decentralized organization. Essentially, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. There are also hybrid organizations; for example, eBay is a centralized company that decentralizes the customer experience. The decentralization of user ratings has turned out to be a competitive advantage. Another type of hybrid is a centralized company that decentralizes internal parts of its business. General Electric is an example of this model. At General Electric, each business unit has to perform as a stand-alone business. This increases the accountability at each individual business unit. However, in spite of these attempts to utilize decentralized principles I believe that some traditional businesses are simply doomed. A point that is strongly and repeatedly made in The Starfish and the Spider is that the traditional responses by centralized organizations to decentralized organizations invariably fail. In fact, they often are counter-productive, making the problem worse. I think that it’s unlikely that music or software companies operating with a traditional business model will be able to remain competitive in the face of file sharing and open source. In these industries companies will need to adapt or die.

The Starfish and the Spider was an interesting book, and the examples and case studies are particularly good. However, overall it did not seem to me to be especially insightful. The subject matter is similar to that covered in books such as Blink, The Tipping Point, and The Wisdom of Crowds and I also felt that those books basically stated the obvious. On the other hand, as someone who is familiar with, for example, open source and Wikipedia, and who is a believer in the power of internet-enabled collaborative technology I’m probably not the target audience. Still, I think the basic points that the book makes are good ones. A decentralized organization creates chaos and ambiguity, but this ambiguity provides the necessary platform to stimulate creativity and innovation.

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