The Starfish and the Spider

I have just finished reading a marvelous book, The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom.   (Full disclosure: Ori Brafman endorsed my new book Group Genius.)  SS (I’ll call it by the title’s initials) is, at root, a book about complex social networks, and the principles and stories in it will be immediately recognizable to scholars who study social networks, complex dynamical systems, and social emergence. But what’s brilliant about this book is that it’s so accessible; not a single academic citation, not even in the notes. Instead, their point is made with fascinating stories, and they make concrete recommendations that managers will easily be able to apply to their own organizations.

The book’s unifying thread is the distinction between two kinds of organizational forms. A spider is a centralized organization, the hierarchical company of the 1950s. If you cut off a spider’s head, it dies. The starfish is a decentralized organization, what scholars would call self-organizing, self-managing, or emergent (although these terms don’t appear in the book). A starfish doesn’t have a head. If you cut off one leg, the starfish grows a new one; and the detached leg can actually grow itself another four legs. I knew that; but what I didn’t know was that a starfish has no central nervous system. As Brafman and Beckstrom report, neuroscientists have discovered that what happens when a starfish starts walking is that the urge to walk begins in one of the five legs, and then somehow the other four legs are convinced to join in (scientists don’t yet know how this happens).

This makes the starfish an apt metaphor for leaderless, self-managed organizations. Their examples include Al Qaeda, Wikipedia, the Apache’s resistance to the Spanish colonists, Alcoholics Anonymous, and how the abolitionist movement piggybacked on the Quaker community’s decentralized organization.  Of course, the Internet is frequently mentioned–not only as a starfish itself, but as a mechanism that makes the formation of starfish much more easy than it was in the past.  These are familiar stories, but SS does a wonderful job of identifying the common themes and translating them into practical advice.

There are a handful of recent books that emphasize leaderless, self-managing organizations, including Leadership Ensemble, written by the director of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra of New York, a group that performs without a conductor.  Other recent books with similar themes include Swarm Creativity, Democratizing Innovation, and Smart World.  In my own book Group Genius, I refer to starfish organizations as “collaborative webs” and I argue that breakthrough innovations always emerge from these distributed networks, rather than in centralized bureaucracies.

The most wonderful aspect of SS is how incredibly easy it is to read; you can finish it on a short plane ride.  And you’ll remember the take-home message; I counted eight principles of decentralization, including “open systems can easily mutate” (p. 40) and “when attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more open and decentralized” (p. 21).  Their final chapters provide advice on both how to fight a starfish (this book has apparently been widely read in the U.S. military to provide tips on countering Al Qaeda) and how business organizations can transform themselves into hybrid organizations that mix the best features of centralization and decentralization (eBay is their example of a hybrid organization that is a centralized company, but one that decentralizes the customer experience, for example with its user rating system).  What they call the “sweet spot” is the perfect blend of centralization and decentralization, given your company’s competitive environment and customers.

I’m intrigued by this book because it contains stories I already know, and has unifying themes I’m deeply familiar with, and yet I still enjoyed reading it and felt like I learned something new.

2 thoughts on “The Starfish and the Spider

  1. I’m very intrigued by this subject and will have to check out this book. To some extent the idea of a “starfish” organization seems a bit mythical though…is it actually possible that such organizations exist? As a writer at I cover innovation and have also looked at Web 2.0 which also touches on this idea of a more democratic organization, but despite what I hear about the trend towards a more collaborative innovation (and structure), organizations for the most part seem to still be top-down (the spider)…but perhaps I am not asking the questions in quite the right way? Here’s a sampling:
    Seven Highly Effective Ways to Kill Innovation
    Innovation Is Not a Democracy, and Other Thoughts
    Is the Enterprise Afraid of Web 2.0?
    Also, I really like your post on the importance of vacations! It makes perfect sense…if there’s not any breathing room, how can ideas actually bloom?

  2. I would agree that hybrid orgs are probably more common than a pure “starfish” model. Facebook might be a good example of a hybrid.

    I work for BrainReactions. We have a web 2.0 site that allows users to brainstorm and decide what a good idea looks like. I believe we are a starfish with a few people handling the mechanics. can only get better with more users.

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