The Starfish and the Spider

The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations’ is a 2006 book by Ori Brafman (author of the 2010 book ‘Click: The Magic of Instant Connections’) and Rod Beckstrom (President of ICANN); it is an exploration of the implications of the recent rise of decentralized organizations such as Wikipedia, Grokster and YouTube.

The book contrasts them to centralized organizations, such as Encyclopædia Britannica. The spider and starfish analogy refers to the contrasting biological nature of the respective organisms, starfish have a decentralized neural structure permitting regeneration, whereas spiders have in a hierarchical nervous system.

In addition to giving historical examples of decentralized organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous and the Apaches and analyzing their nature in contrast to centralized organizations, the book considers conflict between centralized and decentralized organizations, including the ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’ solution of creating hybrid organizations such as ‘Citizendium’ (a Wikipedia competitor that does not permit anonymous editing). A chapter towards the end of the book explores the concept of the ‘sweet spot,’ the optimal mix of decentralized and centralized attributes.

The book identifies a set of people the authors call ‘catalysts,’ who tend to be skilled at creating decentralized organizations. The authors list several abilities and behaviors (called ‘The Catalyst’s Tools’) that they share including: genuine interest in others; numerous loose connections, rather than a small number of close connections; skill at social mapping; desire to help everyone they meet; the ability to listen and understand, rather than giving advice (‘Meet people where they are’); Emotional Intelligence; trust in others and in the decentralized network; Inspiration (to others); Tolerance for ambiguity; A hands-off approach (catalysts do not interfere with, or try to control the behavior of the contributing members of the decentralized organization); and the ability to let go (after building up a decentralized organization, catalysts move on, rather than trying to take control).

This book has some similarities to books like ‘The Tipping Point,’ by Malcolm Gladwell, as both identify certain sets of people who are important to change in a society or an organization, and try to define the attributes that people belonging to these sets have in common. The theoretical base draws richly from complexity writers in management, such as Ralph Stacey, Margaret Wheatley, and Dee Hock.

The authors describe several catalysts, the people who found a starfish group and who gives it form, ideas, value, focus, and meaning. Some examples of such human catalysts in the book include: Granville Sharp, leader of the abolitionist movement against slavery in England; Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who founded the women’s suffrage movement that Susan B. Anthony later took up with still greater energy; Craig Newmark of craigslist; Bill Wilson of Alcoholics Anonymous; and Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia.

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