The Starfish and the Spider: A book review by Bob Morris

The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations
Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom
Portfolio/Penguin Group (2008)

Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom explain that the title of their book refers to metaphors: The starfish represents the decentralized network, one that has no central command because it is a neural network, “basically a network of cells…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…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, …the animal can replicate itself from a single piece of an arm.” What about the spider? With its eight legs coming out of a centralized body, tiny head, and eight eyes, it represents a centralized network. “If you chop off the head, it dies. Maybe it could survive without a leg or two, and could possibly even stand to lose a couple of eyes, but it certainly could couldn’t survive without its head.”

Throughout their lively narrative, Brafman and Beckstrom rigorously examine primarily centralized organizations (e.g. Aztecs and the Spanish army) and primarily decentralized organizations (e.g. the Spanish conquistadores and Apaches) noting the most significant differences that help to explain why – when in conflict — the former are vulnerable to the latter. In fact, when attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more open and decentralized, can easily be mistaken for a centralized organization, has intelligence distributed throughout the entire system, its open systems can easily mutate, it can “easily sneak up on you [while] growing incredibly quickly.”

Readers will welcome the research-driven approach that Brafman and Beckstrom in this volume, especially the fact that after identifying the “what” (i.e. the central issues to be addressed), they focus almost all of their attention on “why” and “how” leaderless organizations are unstoppable. They offer dozens of real-world examples of organizations that have – or compete with those that have – “a hidden force” and “the harder you fight this force, the stronger it gets. The more chaotic it seems, the more resilient it is. The more you [or anyone else] tries to control it, the more unpredictable it becomes.” How can this be true? How can the absence of structure, leadership, and formal organization, once considered a weakness, become a major asset? It is for starfish organizations; however, for spider organizations, as already indicated, it is a liability. They die.

An Englishman, Thomas Clarkson, was relentless in promoting the abolition of slavery. He was inherently hyperactive and operated well in nonhierarchical environments. He formed a circle and was the only member who worked on the issue full-time. “For the next sixty years, Clarkson dedicated his life to the movement.” Nonetheless, he was soon forgotten. “Credit for the abolition of slavery [in 1833, years before its abolition in America] was attributed to William Wilberforce, a politician who was the movement’s ally and spokesman in Parliament.” As the example of Clarkson clearly demonstrates, the various leaders of a decentralized movement never bother to secure recognition for themselves. Most people credit the success of a movement to the wrong person, in this instance a politician rather than an evangelist, because they do not understand the power of a starfish organization.

Perhaps to a greater extent than do “champions,” those whom Brafman and Beckstrom characterize as “catalysts” have a much greater importance to decentralized organizations. Why? Because, after initiating a circle and then fading away into the background, moving on, the catalyst transfers ownership and responsibility to each circle’s members. Think of catalysts as being those who concentrate on establishing an organizational infrastructure (especially in terms of its ideology) and do so inconspicuously. Their satisfaction has nothing to do with attracting attention and gaining power or praise; rather, with helping strengthen and advance a cause in which they passionately believe. In this context, I am reminded of the insights that Jeanne Liedtka, Robert Rosen, and Robert Wiltbank share in The Catalyst: How You Can Become an Extraordinary Growth Leader, Mother Teresa, the Missionaries of Charity. In Chapter 6, they explain how to lead pragmatically and idealistically at the same time when leading a growth initiative: First, identify the starting point and destination, then recruit an A team because it takes the best people who “are fully committed to a shared vision [and who will] consistently perform at the top of their game.”

Moreover, as Brafman and Beckstrom correctly emphasize in the final chapter, it is critically important for everyone involved to be at the top of their game when a decentralized organization’s “sweet spot” has been identified. That is, “the point along the centralized-decentralized continuum that yields the best competitive advantage. In a way, finding the sweet spot is like Goldilocks eating the various bowls of porridge: this one is too hot, this one is too cold, but this one is just right.”

There are others, however, who ask Brafman and Beckstrom how they can be a better starfish in what seems to be a spiderlike organization. That is an excellent question. “We pointed them to the model of Mother Teresa, who created the Missionaries of Charity, a starfishlike organization that has spread out to 133 countries, while still working within the confines of an ancient, hierarchical organization.” My guess is that, during the decades to come, the number of organizations that are primarily starfishlike will increase and the number of organizations that are primarily spiderlike will decrease. But none will be either a starfish or spider because there will always be a need for both order/structure and “chaos”/freedo

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