Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Starfish and the Spider, by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom

The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom

If you cut off a spider’s head it dies, but if you cut off the leg of a starfish, it grows a new one. This biological truth has been reflected many times in our society: the French underground during WWII, terrorist cells today, open source software, and the Boy Scouts of America to name a few. These examples have led the authors to an interesting conclusion: decentralization is the key to unstoppable organizations. Interestingly, the most successful groups tend to be a combination of spider and starfish: Alcoholics Anonymous is made up of many small circles capable of operating and growing independently of each other (very starfish-like), yet Alcoholics Anonymous World Services is the parent organization that controls copyrights, trademarks, and other intellectual property (clearly a spider).

Sony Records, IBM, and the U.S. government are clearly not starfish (although I suppose you could argue that the original intent of the Constitution was to allow a much higher degree of state autonomy than we currently possess which in turn would dramatically decrease the spider-like top-down authority our federal government wields) and yet are obviously highly successful; given this, how can anyone claim that decentralization is superior? The answer is that a spider-like organization doesn’t imply failure any more than a starfish structure guarantees success, but the latter arrangement of small independent groups make it very difficult for a rival force to control or defeat them. Take a look at the competitors of the earlier mentioned august institutions: Sony (and most of the recording industry) has been crippled by file sharing (Napster, Kazaa, eMule); IBM while still powerful hasn’t been considered an innovator for years, ceding that label to upstart Internet companies; the government has largely failed in the war on drugs and the war on terror. This is beginning to change, however, largely due to the established companies adopting starfish principles. The armed forces and government intelligence agencies have many small, autonomous units that operate with very loose oversight; this has enabled many successes against terrorism at home and abroad. IBM has become a champion for open source software, especially Linux and Eclipse. The recording industry on the other hand has tried to defend it’s market by becoming even more spider-like, foisting DRM on the public and prosecuting individuals for file sharing which in turn is causing a growing backlash of negative public opinion—clearly not a successful strategy.

Obviously I found this book very interesting. The discussions of when decentralization is a positive thing (free speech, the open flow of ideas, privacy—nobody likes the idea of Big Brother) and when it is negative (security, accountability, safety—when on an airplane, would you want the guy in “seat 28J to decide that right about now is a good time to land?”) were spot on. The discussion behind how a starfish confederation is formed was presented in a simple yet compelling fashion: a catalyst helps like-minded people connect and then gets out of the way, his place taken by a champion that relentlessly promotes the idea. This book gives an excellent analysis of a time-proven organizational technique that anyone interested in innovation or corporate evolution should read.

First Sentence:
Don Verrilli might as well have uncorked the champagne bottle right then and there on the marble steps of the Supreme Court—the case he was about to argue was a slam-dunk.

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