November 23, 2012

The Starfish and the Spider – Ori Brafman & Rod A. Beckstrom

The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations

This book is a classic of Internet literature; it is an excellent starting point to understand the core principles of decentralization. It is a great tool for current entrepreneurs, and looks at exchange and operating principles within networks.

Today, numerous organizations do not take full advantage of their activities associated with new technologies. New behavior and usages remain similarly inaccessible. Adopting new forms of labor, collaboration and mobility involves questioning a heavy baggage of century-old hierarchical structures that are based on a pyramid-shaped central command.

It is nevertheless difficult to ignore the (sometime worrisome) success of some troublemakers that shake up the established order. Whether we think of hacktivists from the Anonymous movement, or new factions of Al-Qaeda that stretch from Pakistan to Mali, or the protocol for transferring files BitTorrent, or just the Internet—they all rely on the power of decentralization.

This book, written in 2006 by two Stanford graduates, offers a clear and entertaining vision of decentralization. A spider and a starfish could look similar. They are, however, fundamentally different. If beheaded, the former dies; the latter has a decentralized nervous system that enables it to regenerate itself from an amputated limb.

In the 16th century, Spanish invaders Cortés and Pissaro were responsible for the collapse of the Aztec and Inca by killing their royal leaders. However, they were stopped in their bloody conquest in northern Mexico when they faced the Apaches. Towards the end of the 17th century, even if they didn’t built gigantic pyramids, didn’t have gold and appeared as “primitive,” Apaches resisted the Spanish empire for two centuries. Their secret? Organization.


The authors refer to the Apaches as throughout their book, and develop various entry points to compare two types of operational systems and to analyze decentralized organizations. They describe three different strategies that are used against a decentralized rival, offer a number of paths towards collaborative practices (with examples such as eBay, Napster, Toyota or Alcoholic Anonymous).

At a time when Iceland’s new constitution is done by “crowdsourcing” and when the most robust aspect of network culture, collaboration, is not incorporated into most corporations, the Starfish and the Spider is both a metaphor and a crucial reading. The book initiates serious thinking and helps the transition from traditional command-and-control-based management to open, disseminated collaborative behaviors.

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