Tradition organizations are organized in a hierarchal fashion. There is usually a leader, with several subordinates, themselves with subordinates. This type of structure is a very top down approach to organizing leadership. The Starfish and the Spider, by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, takes a look at another type of organizational approach: one that relies on the power of peer relationships. Not only is the book one of the most insightful books to come out about organizations in recent years, but it also serves as a valuable survey to some very important battles between businesses with the two organizational styles.
The title, The Starfish and the Spider, comes from nature and the makeup of those two organisms, and how they match the two organizational styles discussed within the book. The spider is the standard, top down hierarchal organization. Control & decision-making are contained in one part of the spiders’ body: its head. It’s the head that is responsible for all decisions. For example, if the spider wants to move somewhere, its head notifies its legs of where they’re going and they’re off. If the spider’s head becomes injured or severed from its body, the spider will die. This is an example of a traditional, top down organization with a CEO or president. Starfish, on the other hand, is an example of system where decision-making is distributed throughout the entire organization. Control and decision-making are distributed across the entire body. If the starfish wants to move somewhere, each individual leg makes the decision to move. If the leg of a starfish were to become severed, that starfish would simply grow a new leg. The severed leg will, in turn, grow into an entirely new starfish. This describes the two types of organizations profiled in the book. Spider organizations are very centralized and rely on visible and controlling leaders. Starfish organizations are decentralized and do not rely on one specific leader.
The authors like to use fancy words like “decentralized” and “centralized” to describe these two organizational structures. However, they do not retreat into esoteric business theory or delve into technical analysis to describe examples of these structures. Instead, they take an approach recently made popular another book on a seemingly dry topic: economics. Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt, explains his economic research by juxtaposing two seemingly unrelated topics together to explain his theories and data. Relating the economic incentives of drug dealers to beauty pageant contestants and relating the drop in crime experienced during the 80’s and 90’s to the Row vs. Wade abortion ruling of 1973 are just two examples of this juxtaposition. Brafman and Beckstrom use a similar tactic when comparing the music industry and their efforts to stomp out peer to peer music swapping and the Spanish army’s attempt to conquer the Apache Indian tribe almost 350 years ago. In both instances the spiders, played by the Spanish and the music industry, found out that traditional ways to control top down organizations were not working with the starfish, played by the peer-to-peer culture and the Apaches. In fact the starfish organizations were flourishing.
While the concept of a centralized vs. decentralized business sounds technical and certainly only valuable to a small subset of readers, the authors do not confine themselves to strictly business and technical related examples. Citing such other immensely popular and flourishing starfish organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), The Burning Man Festival and The Animal Liberation Front (ALF), the authors provide examples of other non-business, decentralized organizations. In fact, in some examples, there isn’t even a controlling body to speak of. Most of these organizations are brought together by nothing more than an ideology.
All of this talk about existing organizations, peer-to-peer music sharing and Apache Indian tribes is all well and good, but what if you want to know if there are any common characteristics that these starfish organizations share? Perhaps you are involved in an organization and you would like to make it more starfish like. In this case, the authors do go over not only the characteristics of starfish organizations, but also several rules for migrating your organization to become more starfish like. The Long Tail by Chris Anderson takes a similar approach. In Mr. Anderson’s case, his topic is about the rise of the niche within our culture, not only with consumers and producers of media, but also more targeted advertising. In both books, the authors provide characteristics of organizations that are taking advantage of the ideas put forth, as well as rules to follow if you want to take advantages of their ideas. Both books also draw parallels between future success and harnessing the power of a large number of people.
The Starfish and The Spider is not only a historical look at traditional and nontraditional starfish organizations, but also a manifesto for the future of our society. Already, the core of entire industries is being shaken. The music industry, with the rise of peer-to-peer music sharing and of independent publishing, is finding itself on the defensive, with no clear path to maintain it’s historical control. The phone company, with the rise of such services as Vonage and Skype, is also reeling. Unable to compete against such agile and nimble organizations, large companies such as AT&T and General Motors are finding themselves in real danger. The rise in communication power of the Internet coupled with the overall increase of globalization has led to a rise in starfish organizations worldwide. The Starfish and the Spider lifts the lid on that revolution and gives organizations the tools and the insight to adapt and become more starfish like. The starfish and the spiders are battling, and the starfish are winning convincingly.