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November 13, 2006

Jack Covert Selects: Jack Covert Selects: The Starfish and The Spider

By: Jack @ 4:19 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

The Starfish and The Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations
By Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, Portfolio, 240 Pages, $24.95, Hardcover, October 2006, ISBN 1591841437
I don't know many business books that start with a story about the Apache Indians in the 1600's. After the Spanish destroyed the Aztec and Incan empires, they looked north to the American Southwest. The Apaches didn't have anything of value, so the Spaniards tried to convert them into Catholic farmers. This didn't work out too well. Why? The Apaches have no central leader. There was no Montezuma or Atahuallpa to overthrow or bargain with. The Apaches were a decentralized organization that gained strength the more it was attacked.
You might be asking what this has to do with the world we live in today, business or otherwise. Have you heard of Craiglist or Skype? They are bound to do the same to newspapers and the phone as Napster and its descendants have done to the music industry. These are all organizations that are not dependent on a leader for its survival. And, of course, there is al Queda, another decentralized group that no one can seem to get a location on.
The metaphor of the starfish and the spider explains the authors idea so well. The spider is an eight-legged insect that, while it may survive the removal of one or two legs, it would surely die if it lost another leg or even its head. Most companies are spiders.
For a starfish, the removal of a leg means nothing. The leg grows back and another starfish grows from the removed leg. Decentralized organizations work the same way. If part of the organization is hurt or destroyed, the group fractures and grows from the broken pieces. This can also happen non-violently, like when an Alcoholics Anonymous circle forms where one is needed.
This book is more than interesting stories and cute metaphors. Like all good business book authors, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom give you a number of frameworks to think about as you read the book. They provide a list of qualities that can help you identify what a leaderless organization looks like. They give you five factors that make these organizations work (circles, a catalyst, ideology, a pre-existing network, and a champion). They also give three strategies for fighting decentralized groups.
This book is loaded; I didn't even have time here to talk about the Quakers...