The Starfish and the Spider
The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations

By: Ori Brafman and Rod. A. Beckstrom

Summary by Leslie Johnston, Business Book Summaries

Consider a spider and a starfish. If a spider's head is cut off, it cannot function. If it loses a leg, it is significantly disabled. However, if a starfish loses an arm—or two or three—it regenerates them, and without a central brain at the top.

Organizations fall into these two categories, say the authors of The Starfish and the Spider. They are either spiders, with a traditional hierarchy and top-down organization, or they are revolutionary starfish, which rely on the power of peer relationships. What happens when no one is in charge in an organization? While, upon first thought, we think there would be disorder, and even chaos, a lack of traditional leadership is giving rise to powerful groups that are turning industry and society upside down.

With centralized systems, we know who is in charge, and these leaders make decisions in a specific place. In decentralized organizations, there is no leader, no hierarchy, and no headquarters; it is an open system. These systems are not complete anarchy, however. Rules and norms do exist, but they are not enforced by any one person. Rather, the power is distributed among all the people involved across any number of geographical regions. It comes as no surprise then that decentralized (starfish) organizations can sneak up on spiders—centralized organizations—because starfish are nimble; they mutate and grow quickly.

Decentralized organizations are circular in structure. These circles can be tied to a physical place, or they can be virtual. Once we get into a circle, we are equals, and we contribute to the best of our ability. In all open organizations there must be a catalyst, a person who initiates a circle and then fades away into the background, ceding control to the members. What makes members follow a catalyst and join a circle? There is usually not much money to be made in decentralized organizations; therefore, it is about ideology. Sometimes it is necessary, however, for spiders to draw upon the decentralized world for a "combo approach" to remain competitive. This "combo" approach, however, requires constant balancing. Organizations must seek and pursue the "sweet spot"–the point along the centralized-decentralized continuum that yields the best competitive advantage. Being on the "sweet spot" today is no guarantee that it will not shift tomorrow, for it is a tug of war—the forces of centralization and decentralization are continually pull the "sweet spot" to and fro. Understanding that it can move, and predicting the shifts, are two very different tasks for an organization.

With the open system movement (brought about largely as a result of the Internet), there are some discernible patterns. Traditionally, the larger the organization, the more power it wielded. Decentralization has changed that. Small size combined with a network of users gives an organization flexibility and power, and the effectiveness of a network is in its overall value, which is increased each time a new member is added—most often at no cost. Because they are not structured and hierarchical, starfish organizations are incubators for creative and innovative ideas, ideas which attract new people to the network.

In these starfish organizations, knowledge, instead of being at the top, is spread throughout, and not only do the members have knowledge, they have a fundamental desire to share and contribute because ideology is the fuel that drives a decentralized organization. While they do not fill a CEOs role, catalysts are crucial to starfish organizations because they inspire people to action. When we take on a starfish, we must be beware—if we cut off one arm, another will grow in its place. There are ways to fight a decentralized organization, including changing the ideology of a starfish and centralizing them, but, most often, the best hope for survival for a centralized organization, Brafman and Beckstrom believe, is to decentralize themselves.

Decentralization will continue to change industry and society, and it is a force that can be harnessed for immense power.

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