Starfish & Spider – a review

The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom (2006)

A Book Review by Leighton Jay

This is a book about the dynamics of how things work in the world around us. While they have a particular focus on organisations, the dynamics they discuss are readily visible in things like the rise of terrorism and the intrusion of disruptive technologies. The authors caricature traditional organisations as spiderlike: hierarchical in nature with an identifiable head, usually a CEO or Managing Director. This person ultimately guides and directs the organisation’s activities and development. In contrast, starfish organisations are identified as being typically built around local strengths, the devolution of power and authority, a strong unifying ideology and the absence of an identifiable head such as a CEO. In determining whether an organisation is more of a spider or a Starfish, the authors suggest the following 10 questions can be helpful.

  1. Is there a person in charge?
  2. Are their 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 organisation harmed?
  6. Are knowledge and power concentrated or distributed?
  7. Is the organisation flexible or rigid?
  8. Can you count the employees or participants?
  9. Are working groups funded by the organisation, or are they self-funding?
  10. Do working groups communicate directly or through intermediaries?

The authors discuss the development and disruptive influence of peer-to-peer music sharing software programs such as Napster and Kazaa that ultimately gave rise to iTunes and similar ‘mainstream’ approaches that have redefined the power and dynamics of the music industry. Skype, Wikipedia, Quakers and Alcoholics Anonymous are other cited examples of starfish organisations. From these and other case studies, they propose five ‘ legs ‘ on which starfish organisations stand.

Circles: circles are an important feature of nearly every decentralised organisation the authors explore, with each circle having a measure of independence and autonomy. Joining a circle brings equality and an expectation that each member will contribute to the best of their ability. The internet enables people to form and join circles from anywhere. Because they don’t have hierarchy and structure, it can be difficult to maintain rules within circles. As such, they rely on norms that group members set and enforce to form the strength of the circle. People frequently know what the norms are before they sign up to join a circle. AA circles are a good example of this principle in action. As members take ownership of the norms, this enhances their ability to trust one another.

The Catalyst: A catalyst is any element or compound that initiates a reaction without fusing into that reaction. In open organisations, the catalyst is the person who initiates a circle and then fades away into the background. They can lead by example, but they never force their views on others. In decentralised organisations, a catalyst gets it going and lets go of the leadership role, transferring ownership and responsibility to the circle. Once the catalyst leaves, his or her presence remains as an inspiration that stirs others to action (E.g. Osama bin Laden). Typically, a catalyst develops an idea, shares it with others, and leads by example as the circle grows. If the catalyst stays around too long and becomes absorbed in their creation, the whole structure necessarily becomes more centralised. The author’s identify and discuss a range of catalyst tools and note that catalysts may find the hierarchy and structure of large organisations repressive. While they often bring elements of chaos and ambiguity, find ways to let them dream and they and those around them will thrive.

Ideology: There is not often much money to be made in decentralised, circle organisations. People join because they share the particular ideology, they value open systems and mutual respect, and they want to make a contribution. In AA, the ideology or core value is that people can help each other out of addiction. The twelve steps reflect the implications of this belief such that people who don’t buy into the twelve steps aren’t likely to stay with AA. Some ideologies are stronger than others and people will fight harder to protect them (e.g. abolition of slavery vs free music via the internet). In organisations, the ideology is typically expressed through its values.

The Pre-existing Network: Almost every decentralised organisation that has made it big was launched from a pre-existing network. The Abolitionists in England (think of the movie “Amazing Grace’) utilised the Quakers, localised circles connected to one another through shared ideology and values. The Quakers were an existing network that abolitionists utilised to create an army of activists that ultimately ended slavery. In the modern era, the internet is profoundly important as key infrastructure through which circles can connect rapidly and easily to each other around the globe feeding the decentralisation of power, information and knowledge.

The Champion: A champion is a relentless promoter of new ideas. While catalysts are charismatic and inspire and connect people, champions are natural ‘people’ people who are great salesmen with loads of energy that they dedicate to selling their cause.

Protest, activist and shared interest groups are increasingly using the power of the internet and starfish principles to promote their causes. The values are clear and people sign on because of these. Typically, leadership and decision-making are localised – each circle can make decisions about actions that fit their local context and are consistent with the group’s beliefs. Such devolution of power, leadership and authority makes it very difficult for spider organisations to combat the activities of starfish organisations. It isn’t possible to attack the head and expect that to have a big impact. Osama Bin Laden’s death has had no noticeable impact on slowing the spread of fundamentalist Islamic militancy. Combating starfish requires completely different strategies – strategies that are typically very difficult for spider organisations to recognise and implement. The authors suggest three strategies that are most likely to succeed: change their ideology; turn them into centralised organisations; and become a more decentralised organisation yourself. To date, we have not seen Western governments effectively utilise any of these strategies.

Chapter seven is devoted to discussing the merits of hybridisation – mixing starfish qualities with spiderlike structure. With E-Bay presented as a successful hybrid organisation. Devolving power to consumers has enabled E-Bay to buy the loyalty of reputable sellers who don’t want to lose their hard-won and widely known reputations, and buyers who have come to trust the reviews written by other consumers ‘just like them’. Paid reviews would have far less power.

The final chapter identifies and discusses ten new rules of the game.


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