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Book review: The Starfish & the Spider

The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom is an interesting read about the emergence and development of de-centralized organizations. The book starts off with an interesting anecdote:  Spiders and starfish, similar in shape, have differences that are relevant to today’s organizational environments. In the world of nature the spider will cease to exist if cut in half while the starfish, under the same circumstances, will re-generate and continue to develop and thrive into 2 separate starfish.

While continuing to compare and contrasts the strengths and weaknesses of centralization and decentralization the focus is definitely on the latter and the authors introduce key ideas and components of what drives decentralized organizations. They use some well-known examples of groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Craigslist. These organizations expanded and developed based on need and value systems.

The first and most important aspect of the decentralized organization is a “catalyst,” a person who can bring components together but has no real interest in taking charge, rather he or she has a skill set that pulls the appropriate connections together to empower the process of the group.

A couple of other key concepts that drive some of the ideas in the book include recognizing the power of chaos and knowledge at the edge. Given an environment that is rapidly changing with an overload of information available, embracing change and making information transparent to all can actually empower the process of developing and adapting as different people make different contributions in the decentralized environment.

I found these ideas appealing in thinking about today’s business environments where everyone is encouraged to find and apply leadership qualities. Centralized organizations require someone to step up, take charge and be responsible, in many cases a real creativity killer. In the decentralized model the ideas and values are what continue to drive the groups and individuals and they break off and adapt as new ideas and values are created.

The challenge in today’s organizational environment is to combine the best of both worlds, recognizing and developing a creative process to adapt to new challenges (the Starfish) while maintaining the structure and control (the Spider) that allows an organization to maintain direction and focus. The leadership requirements for both ideas seem to be mutually exclusive, yet are equally important in businesses and industries where innovation and change is the norm. The authors present some interesting ideas and concepts for us to consider as we ponder these questions.

Post by Mark Mueller.

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