The Starfish and the Spider

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Cover of 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 ISBN 978-0-385-52905-1) and Rod Beckstrom is an exploration of the implications of the recent rise of decentralized organizations such as Grokster and YouTube. The book contrasts them to centralized organizations, such as Encyclopædia Britannica, using compendia of knowledge as examples. The spider and starfish analogy refers to the contrasting biological nature of the respective organisms, starfish having a decentralized neural structure permitting regeneration.

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.[citation needed] A chapter towards the end of the book explores the concept of the "sweet spot", the optimal mix of decentralized and centralized attributes.


Don Verelli was an attorney who championed the effort for MGM to crack down on the peer-to-peer music website Grokster. But although the record labels won the lawsuits, other groups such as Kazaa, and eMule surfaced. The authors compare the record companies to "spiders" – organizations under the control of a central brain or leader – while the smaller organizations are more like "starfish" – if a limb is severed, the remaining parts are able to regenerate the entire body, resulting in two or more starfish. The spider organization is compared to the Aztec Empire which fell when Montezuma was defeated by Hernán Cortés and his Spanish army, but the starfish organization is compared to the Apaches, who decentralized and became nomadic, and of which the Spanish army could not defeat.

Dave Garrison of Netcom attempts to explain the Internet to executives in Paris, but is met with questions such as who would run the Internet. The authors look into the starfish Alcoholics Anonymous, which survives and thrives even away from the founder. They also look into the history of the music industry since the 19th century from live performers to recording on small labels to ownership from the big five record companies to Napster and P2P. They list questions that determine whether an organization is more like a spider or a starfish.

The authors discuss some founders of starfish organizations: Niklas Zennstrom and Skype; Craig Newmark and Craigslist. They discuss the formation of the Apache software model and how editors work on Wikipedia articles. They then discuss the starfish self-organization of participants in the Burning Man festival.

American lawyer Granville Sharp's decision to defend the freedom of a slave named Jonathan Strong leads him to connect with the Quakers and to advocate for the abolition of the slave trade. The authors use Sharp's story to illustrate five foundational principles called the Five Legs: 1) Circles; 2) The Catalyst; 3) Ideology; 4) The Preexisting Network; 5) The Champion. They apply the Five Legs to the story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton who served as the catalyst to the women's rights movement with Susan B. Anthony as the champion.



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 "catalysts" have in common, including:

  1. Genuine interest in others.
  2. Numerous loose connections, rather than a small number of close connections.
  3. Skill at social mapping.
  4. Desire to help everyone they meet.
  5. The ability to help people help themselves by listening and understanding, rather than giving advice ("Meet people where they are").
  6. Emotional intelligence.
  7. Trust in others and in the decentralized network.
  8. Inspiration (to others).
  9. Tolerance for ambiguity.
  10. A hands-off approach. Catalysts do not interfere with, or try to control the behavior of the contributing members of the decentralized organization.
  11. 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, Dee Hock, Doug Griffin, Patricia Shaw, John Holland, and Robert Axelrod, among others. The book provides an original and accessible way to see these principles in action.

"A leader is best when people barely know that he exists; not so good when people obey and acclaim him; worst when they despise him." (p115) (Lao-tzu)

"As a catalyst, it's all about letting go and trusting the community." (p111)

The book talks about '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:

  1. Granville Sharp, leader of the abolitionist movement against slavery in England
  2. Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who founded the women's suffrage movement that Susan B. Anthony later took up with still greater energy
  3. Craig Newmark of craigslist
  4. Bill Wilson of Alcoholics Anonymous
  5. Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia

The Ten Rules[edit]

The authors use a series of analogies throughout their book, summarizing their thoughts with Ten Rules:

  1. Diseconomies of scale- In contrast to Economies of scale, small companies have power.
  2. Network effect - every additional person makes the organization stronger. In contrast to adding devices to a network, members can be added to decentralized organizations with little cost.
  3. Power of chaos.- Decentralized "Starfish systems" accept chaos better than centralized organizations and thrive because of it.
  4. Knowledge at the edge - information about the organization is open to everybody.
  5. Everyone wants to contribute - members of a decentralized organization are more self-motivated.
  6. Beware the hydra response.- Using the Lernaean Hydra as an analogy, attacking the top of a decentralized organization can actually make it stronger.
  7. Catalysts rule.-- In contrast to a centralized organization with a CEO as a leader, "Catalysts are important because... they inspire people to action."
  8. The Values Are the Organization- The authors argue that an ideology is more important to decentralized organizations.
  9. Measure, monitor, and manage. Despite being chaotic, decentralized organizations can still be measured.
  10. Flatten or be flattened.- To oppose a decentralized organization, organizations may have to become more decentralized. The authors describe a "sweet spot" for organizations with a balance between centralization and decentralization.

The Major Principles of Decentralization[edit]

  1. When attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more open and decentralized (p21)
  2. It's easy to mistake starfish for spiders (p36)
  3. An open system doesn't have central intelligence; the intelligence is spread throughout the system (p39)
  4. Open systems can easily mutate (p40)
  5. The decentralized organization sneaks up on you (p41)
  6. As industries become decentralized, overall profits decrease (p45)
  7. Put people into an open system and they’ll automatically want to contribute (p74)
  8. When attacked, centralized organizations tend to become even more centralized (p139)

Decentralized Networks[edit]

Energy --> Catalyst --> Ideology --> Circles --> Protocols

See also[edit]

Works cited[edit]

  • The Starfish And the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, Penguin (October 5, 2006), hardcover, 230 pages, ISBN 1-59184-143-7


External links[edit]