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

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

3.6 22
by Ori Brafman
 

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If you cut off a spider’s leg, it’s crippled; if you cut off its head, it dies. But if you cut off a starfish’s leg it grows a new one, and the old leg can grow into an entirely new starfish.

What’s the hidden power behind the success of Wikipedia, Craigslist, and Skype? What do eBay and General Electric have in common with the abolitionist

Overview

If you cut off a spider’s leg, it’s crippled; if you cut off its head, it dies. But if you cut off a starfish’s leg it grows a new one, and the old leg can grow into an entirely new starfish.

What’s the hidden power behind the success of Wikipedia, Craigslist, and Skype? What do eBay and General Electric have in common with the abolitionist and women’s rights movements? What fundamental choice put General Motors and Toyota on vastly different paths? How could winning a Supreme Court case be the biggest mistake MGM could have made?

After five years of ground-breaking research, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom share some unexpected answers, gripping stories, and a tapestry of unlikely connections. The Starfish and the Spider argues that organizations fall into two categories: traditional “spiders,” which have a rigid hierarchy and top-down leadership, and revolutionary “starfish,” which rely on the power of peer relationships.

The Starfish and the Spider explores what happens when starfish take on spiders (such as the music industry vs. Napster, Kazaa, and the P2P services that followed). It reveals how established companies and institutions, from IBM to Intuit to the US government, are also learning how to incorporate starfish principles to achieve success. The book explores:

* How the Apaches fended off the powerful Spanish army for 200 years
* The power of a simple circle
* The importance of catalysts who have an uncanny ability to bring people together
* How the Internet has become a breeding ground for leaderless organizations
* How Alcoholics Anonymous has reached untold millions with only a shared ideology and without a leader

The Starfish and the Spider is the rare book that will change how you understand the world around you.




From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Brafman and Beckstrom, a pair of Stanford M.B.A.s who have applied their business know-how to promoting peace and economic development through decentralized networking, offer a breezy and entertaining look at how decentralization is changing many organizations. The title metaphor conveys the core concept: though a starfish and a spider have similar shapes, their internal structure is dramatically different-a decapitated spider inevitably dies, while a starfish can regenerate itself from a single amputated leg. In the same way, decentralized organizations, like the Internet, the Apache Indian tribe and Alcoholics Anonymous, are made up of many smaller units capable of operating, growing and multiplying independently of each other, making it very difficult for a rival force to control or defeat them. Despite familiar examples-eBay, Napster and the Toyota assembly line, for example-there are fresh insights, such as the authors' three techniques for combating a decentralized competitor (drive change in your competitors' ideology, force them to become centralized or decentralize yourself). The authors also analyze one of today's most worrisome "starfish" organizations-al-Qaeda-though that group undermines the authors' point that the power of leaderless groups helps to demonstrate the essential goodness and trustworthiness of human beings. (Oct. 5) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Soundview Executive Book Summaries
This book is about what happens when there’s no one in charge. It’s about what happens when there’s no hierarchy. You’d think there would be disorder, even chaos. But in many arenas, a lack of traditional leadership is giving rise to powerful groups that are turning industry and society upside down.

Music Piracy and the Apache Mystery
Despite having won claims in court that music file-sharing services like Grokster, Napster and others reduced its revenues, the recording industry continues to face the problem of music piracy. Major labels like MGM, Columbia, Disney and others have found since the early part of this century that taking the file-sharing services and their users to court only adds fuel to the fire over music piracy. The harder the labels have fought, the stronger the opposition has grown.

The best explanation for these events comes from an unlikely source -- the story of Spanish explorer Cortes. It was Cortes who discovered and conquered the Aztec empire in Mexico by killing the Aztec leader, Montezuma II, starving its 240,000 inhabitants and stealing their gold. The same thing occurred when the Spanish encountered the Incas. But when they encountered the Apaches - a meeting that is crucially linked with the music industry’s fight - the Spanish lost.

Why was this loss crucial? The Apache defeat of the Spanish was all about the way the Apaches were organized as a society. The Apaches distributed political power and had very little centralization. They persevered because they were decentralized.

A centralized organization has a clear leader who’s in charge, and there’s a specific place where decisions are made. Rules need to be set and enforced, or the system collapses.

Decentralized systems, like the Apaches, are different. There’s no clear leader, no hierarchy, no headquarters. The power is distributed among all the people and across geographic regions.

Instead of a chief, the Apaches had a Nant’an -- a spiritual and cultural leader who led by example. On first impression, it may sound like the Apaches were disorganized. In reality, they were an advanced and sophisticated society that was immune to attacks.

Coercive Vs Open Systems
When a coercive system, like the Spanish, takes on an open system, like the Apaches, they start killing the leaders. But as soon as they killed a Nant’an, a new one would emerge. The strategy failed because no one person was essential to the overall well-being of Apache society.

The Spanish attacks served to make the Apaches even stronger. Similarly, Napster’s destruction didn’t quell people’s desire for free music. Along came a new program called Kazaa. It was different from Napster because there was no central server. Kazaa is like an Apache village. Unlike the record labels, there are no headquarters, and if you want to make a thousand copies of your favorite song, go right ahead.

Not only is the music industry unable to curb pirating, but every time the labels sue a Napster or a Kazaa, a new player comes onto the scene that’s even more decentralized and more difficult to battle.

The Spider, the Starfish and the President of the Internet
In 1995, the CEO of an early Internet service provider was raising money for the company. When he tried explaining the Internet to a group of French investors, they wanted to know who the president of the Internet was. They were unable to grasp the fact that no one was in charge. The French, like the Spanish 200 years before them, were used to seeing things in a particular way: Organizations have structures, rules, hierarchies, and, of course, a president. In this case, the French mistook a starfish for a spider.

A spider is a creature with eight legs coming out of a central body. It has a tiny head and eight eyes. If the French investors were to ask who was running the spider show, the answer is clearly the head.

But the French investors weren’t dealing with a spider. The Internet was actually a starfish. At first glance, a starfish is similar to a spider in appearance. But the starfish is decentralized. The starfish doesn’t have a head. The major organs are replicated throughout each arm. A starfish is basically a network of cells. Instead of having a head, like a spider, the starfish functions as a decentralized network.

Following are the major principles of decentralization:

  1. When attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become more open and decentralized.
  2. It’s easy to confuse starfish with spiders.
  3. An open system doesn’t have centralized intelligence; the intelligence is spread throughout the system.
  4. Open systems can easily mutate.
  5. The decentralized organization sneaks up on you.
  6. As industries become decentralized, overall revenues decrease.
  7. Put people into an open system and they’ll automatically want to contribute.
  8. When attacked, centralized organizations tend to become even more centralized.

A Sea of Starfish
There are many starfish-like operations - Skype, craigslist, Alcoholics Anonymous, even the Burning Man festival -all of which allow users to interact with each other directly without anybody telling anybody else what they can and cannot do.

In these systems, what matters most isn’t the CEO but whether the leadership is trusting enough of members to leave them alone. From the user perspective, people don’t notice or care whether they’re interacting with a spider or with a starfish.

The Combo Special: The Hybrid Organization
Companies like eBay are neither a pure starfish nor a pure spider, but a hybrid organization. They combine the best of both worlds -- the bottom-up approach of decentralization and the structure, control, and resulting profit potential of centralization. eBay is a centralized company that decentralizes the customer experience.

Decentralized organizations appear at first glance to be messy and chaotic. But when we begin to appreciate their full potential, what initially looked like entropy turns out to be one of the most powerful forces the world has seen. Copyright © 2007 Soundview Executive Book Summaries


—Soundview Summary
From the Publisher
“The Starfish and the Spider is a compelling and important book.” —Pierre Omidyar, CEO, Omidyar Network and Founder and Chairman, eBay Inc.

“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

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781101216408
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
10/05/2006
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
240
Sales rank:
288,677
File size:
371 KB
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are Saying About This

Paul Saffo
"Starfish 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 and offer a wealth of insights that will be invaluable to anyone starting something new-or rescuing something old-amidst this vast shift."
Director, Institute For The Future
Nicholas J. Nicholas
"A fantastic read. Constantly weaving stories and connections. You'll never see the world the same way again."
Former Co-CEO of Time-Warner
Robin Wolaner
"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's also fun to read! It's a quick read, but a profound one. Every CEO should think about what aspects of catalyst leadership they embody, or can embody, for the good of their company."
author of Naked in the Boardroom
Pradeep Paunrana
"I just read The Starfish and the Spider a second time. I am writing a Board paper asking my Board to approve a completely new top management structure. I have borrowed heavily from your thoughts, and feel even in an age-old bricks and mortar industry, we can apply some of the leaderless organization rules to grow faster and be significant to our members and our communities."
CEO, Athi River Mining, Ltd., publicly listed Kenya Company
Pierre Omidyar
"The Starfish and the Spider is a compelling and important book, rich with examples of how decentralization is fundamental to what I call the 'right environment'-one that promotes equal access, rich connections and 'skin in the game' for participants."
CEO, Omidyar Network; Founder and Chairman, eBay Inc.
From the Publisher
The Starfish and the Spider is a compelling and important book.” —Pierre Omidyar, CEO, Omidyar Network and Founder and Chairman, eBay Inc.

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's also 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

Steve Farrell
"This book explains clearly and simply the power of decentralized organization. If decentralized organization sounds like an oxymoron, read on! This is a powerful new organizational model and Brafman and Beckstrom demonstrate how and why it is taking industries by storm."
Former CEO, Enterprise Networking Systems Inc.
David Martin
"A must read. Starfish are changing the face of business and society. This page-turner is provocative and compelling."
CEO of YPO International

Meet the Author

Ori Brafman is a lifelong entrepreneur.  His adventures include a wireless startup, health food advocacy group, and a network of CEOs working on public benefit projects, which he co-founded with Rod Beckstrom.   He holds a BA in Peace and Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley and an MBA from Stanford Business School.

Rod A. Beckstrom is a serial start-up entrepreneur. He founded CATS Software Inc, which he took public and has helped start and build other high tech firms.  Rod has served on various private and nonprofit boards.  He holds a BA and MBA from Stanford and is a Fulbright Scholar.

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Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 20 reviews.
David_Marquet-Practicum More than 1 year ago
Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom: The Starfish and the Spider My name is David Marquet, from Practicum, Inc and we help our customers achieve organizational success by getting each person to act as a leader. Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom's book, The Starfish and the Spider, is a compelling description of the strengths and weaknesses of decentralized (the starfish) and centralized (the spider) organizations. Many of the examples of decentralized organizations are recent, such as Craigslist, Napster, Wikipedia, and Skype. They also contrast the decentralized Apaches against the centralized Spanish Army, illustrating that decentralized organizations are not new. The authors explain that we are in the midst of a revolution where the absence of the traditional leadership model results in organizations without hierarchy. Through their examples, they demonstrate that while you'd think chaos and disorder would be the result, these groups can be tremendously effective. The authors find biological evidence that supports this result. MIT scientist Jerry Lettvin conducted an experiment which attempted to locate the unique brain cell that housed a specific memory. He couldn't find it. Turns out, the brain itself is a decentralized organ. This means that there is no one cell that houses the memory of grandmother. That would be a fragile architecture as injury to that cell would wipe her out of our memory. Instead, the memory of grandmother lives in a rich pattern of cells. This is a more resilient architecture. We like their thesis and telling of the story. It is consistent with our findings. We frequently get asked, if the leader does not lead the people, who does? Our answer is that people lead themselves. In only one area would I describe these decentralized organizations differently than Brafman and Beckstrom and this is a quibble. They claim these are organizations without leaders. We describe these as organizations where everyone is a leader. In any event, they are organizations where there are no followers!
Guest More than 1 year ago
In 1946, after intensive research, Peter Drucker wrote Concept of the Corporation, a study of decentralization at General Motors. Drucker's book had a profound influence on the business world, particularly on Japanese auto manufacturers, such as Toyota, which incorporated many of his ideas into its operations with great success. Flash forward to 2006, when Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom wrote this pivotal book about 'leaderless organizations.' Their insightful analysis concerns the remarkable organizational revolution under way as hierarchies (spider entities) give way to decentralization (starfish entities). The fundamental tension between these two forces remains a pivotal dynamic in business. Today's decentralization movement makes awareness even more critical. GM failed to learn from Drucker's book. This turned out to be a huge mistake. We recommend: Do not make the same mistake with this important book it should not be ignored.
CultureOfAbundance More than 1 year ago
I'd read this book a few years ago, but it wasn't until I was reminded of it that I re-read it and realized what a game-changer it can be for some people. It may be classified as a business book, but it will really get you thinking about the difference between the "culture of scarcity" that has characterized most of our business culture up to this day and the "culture of abundance" that has created some amazing new companies that simply don't play by the old rules.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I don't know why so many business leaders thought this book was so great. It starts by stating the obvious - that many new and innovative organizations are highly decentralized and that decentralization is their key to success. OK, so what? What about other organizations which cannot adopt or benefit from decentralization? Is there a prediction that they will die out or at least lose their competitive advantage 'fortunately not, because I think that conclusion wrong'? Then what's the big deal that certain decentralized entities benefit from it? Decentralization in no small part depends on trust and even in a more and more transparent world, that is often in short supply. It is not about to take over as a predominant form for businesses or other social organizations.
EPBigham More than 1 year ago
Excellent book, great insight and understanding into how "much" of society is going today in the world of consumer behavior and product engagement and endearment. Top book, don't miss it. The stories about Craig's List and others are worth the read/listen by itself.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love the book it gave me a great insight to why businesses fail and how we could really learn from our own history to avoid mistakes in marketing and expasion. The starfish and spider metaphor was very creative and gives the reader a simplified view of how a businesses could really be successful. although the book was really good i thought some points were made and were being repeated throughout the book other than that this was a great read which should be picked up by many more people to show them how we could improve our businesses and thrive in the future.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hmmmmmmm huhuhuuhhu ohhhgg i say eat my ouknowha! I rub it in his face
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Do me. Im a shecat