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The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations Paperback – July 29, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
“The Starfish and the Spider, like Blink, The Tipping Point, and The Wisdom of Crowds before it, showed me a provocative new way to look at the world and at business. It'salso fun to read!” —Robin Wolaner, founder, Parenting Magazine and author, Naked in the Boardroom
“A fantastic read. Constantly weaving stories and connections. You'll never see the world the same way again.” —Nicholas J. Nicholas Jr., former Co-CEO, Time Warner
“A must-read. Starfish are changing the face of business and society. This page-turner is provocative and compelling.” —David Martin, CEO, Young Presidents' Organization
“The Starfish and the Spider provides a powerful prism for understanding the patterns and potential of self-organizing systems.” —Steve Jurvetson, Partner, Draper Fisher Jurvetson
“The Starfish and the Spider lifts the lid on a massive revolution in the making, a revolution certain to reshape every organization on the planet from bridge clubs to global governments. Brafman and Beckstrom elegantly describe what is afoot and offer a wealth of insights that will be invaluable to anyone starting something new—or rescuing something old—amidst this vast shift.” —Paul Saffo, Director, Institute for the Future “The Starfish and the Spider is great reading. [It has] not only stimulated my thinking, but as a result of the reading, I proposed ten action points for my own organization."—Professor Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman, World Economic Forum
Top Customer Reviews
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.
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.
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.