The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations

If you are searching for information on Centralized (Spider), De-Centralized (Starfish) and Hybrid organizations (Toyota) this book, “The Spider and the Starfish” does a great job of explaining the unique nature of each along with providing examples of their strengths and weaknesses. The authors, Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom, are generous in the examples they provide and stories they share about eBay, Alcoholics Anonymous, Apache, craigslist, Goodwill Industries, and IBM. They are explicit in proposing their explanations for why the Apache were difficult to defeat because of their De-Centralized organization structure and the emergence of “Nan’tans” which are individual leaders who act independently of the organization and are followed by small circles of supporters due to the actions or knowledge of this independent leader. The Apaches held a common belief and ideology that they belonged to the land and deserved to be self governed, they strongly pushed back on any centralized system and anyone who interfered with that became the enemy.

A Spider (Centralized) organization is one that is has a CEO hierarchy and if you cut off the head then the spider dies. The MGM Music industry is currently in this situation where they are struggling to manage the download of free songs provided by many locations. The problem is that these locations function as a Starfish. This organization is devastated by chaos and can not adapt fast enough to react appropriately.

A Starfish (De-Centralized) organization is one that when its legs are cut off will just grow new legs or the leg may grow into an entirely new starfish. In the example above as the MGM Music industry wins court battles protecting their songs more and more location pop up which provide free download capabilities or song swapping opportunities. This organization thrives in chaos and moves and adapts to it in a very flexible manner.

Four key Points about Centralized Organizations are:

First – If orders come from the top the membership may follow but will not
be inspired to give their all.

Second – Leaders in “Top Down Organizations” want to control what is
happening, limiting creativity.

Third – Centralized Organizations are not set up to launch De-centralized


Fourth - Without De-Centralized circles there is no infrastructure for people
to get involved and take ownership of an idea.

The Starfish metaphor and story is important because it established clarity to stories such as the authors share about the Quakers. The Quakers were a starfish (De-Centralized) community and at a certain point specific members decided that the slavery that existed was wrong and decided to support the abolitionist movement. They joined forces with other activist’s and used the Sugar Production industry as the campaign platform to gain public sentiment.

This emergence of a “Catalyst” to move the struggle further is illustrated as an effective way to help create change and open up dialog. One of the most important clarifications the book makes is in the role of an organizational “Catalyst” versus a Champion or a CEO. Catalysts inspire and naturally connect people by creating relationships that are based on Appreciative Inquiry, Trust and Understanding. They are considered “influencers” and every time they have a conversation with someone they are thinking about “How can I help this person” by introducing them to someone else to help this person or make them better.

This is accomplished by sharing inspirational stories and some of the Catalyst’s tools are a genuine interest in others, a desire to help, meet people where They are, emotional intelligence, a tolerance for ambiguity and a hands off approach which leads to receding (they leave!!)

Some of the insights the book leaves you with is the behavior that happens to a “Spider” organization (Centralized) when they are attacked – they typical become more Centralized and hunker down. The “Starfish” organization (De-Centralized) when attacked becomes even more de-centralized and harder to find. With the resurgence of internet many new “Starfish” organizations are emerging such as Wikipedia, Craigslist, Skype and eMule.

The strategies aimed at changing or reducing the power of De-Centralized systems must be evolved from another De-Centralized system – The best opponent for a Starfish organization is many times another Starfish. Possibly the best solution is what is referred to as a Hybrid of the two organizations. This organization would have two components functioning together supporting each other in this methodology…an example is eBay.

eBay allows anyone who wants to join and participate in bidding or selling. The Trust the users of the service rate and grade each other using a very Starfish method. If the users like the seller’s service they rate them higher and that score is visible for all others to see. Harvard researchers have found that items sold with an established record of positive feedback fetched an 8.1 percent premium over identical items sold by non-established sellers.

The second part of the eBay structure is a Centralized structure called PayPal. eBay recognized that the users wanted the structure and organization of a Spider Organization when it came to transfer and billing of accounts. This blend of the two components has created a successful Hybrid Organization where the Spider and the Starfish can co-exist and function together.

This example should be a guide for anyone constructing an organization - if you are in marketplace competition with a Spider Organization the path to success will be very different from campaigning with a Starfish Organization. Those that dismiss the this type of structure referred to as the “Sweet Spot” by the authors should be reminded of the GM NUMMI’s Freemont California auto plant success which was not about rigid management, cultural differences or union politics…it was from Toyota’s continual pursuit of the De-Centralized Organizational “Sweet Spot.”

The Sweet Spot can move back and forth & shift depending on your ability to create communities and communicate effectively. If you are looking for a way to create change, connect people and maintain the drumbeat of ideology then adding a “Catalyst” to your organization may be the spark required to create a “
Starfish” circle, group, team or organization.