The Starfish and the Spider

Book Review: The Starfish and the Spider -- The unstoppable power of leaderless organizations, by Ori Brafman and Rod A Beckstrom, (2006).

From the Spanish conquerors in South America to Apple’s iTunes, the Starfish and the Spider takes us on a tour of organization styles, organized by how hierarchical or how distributed they are. This book was written in the shadow cast by al Qaeda, and the growing realization of what it meant to fight a stateless, leaderless organization. How does something without a head function, live, and survive? How could we fight it?

The title comes from the fact that a starfish has no head, and cutting off it’s legs does not kill the organism. Amazingly each piece can regenerate an entire organism -- there is no part you can remove which will kill the animal. Compare this with the spider, which, of course, cannot live without it’s head.

So, what leaderless organization is getting attention now? The Tea Party is a movement without traditional national leaders, financing or organization. There is, really, no single “Tea Party”, but rather a loose alliance of thousands of small and large groups of people who responded to the financial and policy excesses of the current and previous administrations and congresses.

There are great examples and stories from business for a reformed M.B.A. such as myself to enjoy. And there are interesting perspectives on historical figures including local women's rights advocates Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. But I found myself scanning the volume for what might lie ahead for the Tea Party and the country. Here are a couple of the authors points and my takeaways:

When attacked, a decentralized organization becomes more decentralized to survive. Political pundits are always looking for infighting and splintering in the Tea party. But increasing fragmentaton, might not be so much a sign of weakness, as a reasonable response to remain effective.

Put people in an open system and they’ll automatically want to contribute. The energy behind tea party volunteerism was amazing in this last election cycle. Is it because they were working outside of the major party systems? Can the movement stay open and non-hierarchical to keep up the energy level?

When attacked, centralized organizations tend to become even more centralized. Do the news images of scanners and invasive pat downs at airports raise the hair on the back of you neck? When will the over-the-top security start showing up on our trains and subways? They are almost sure to appear at courthouses. How about schools? Where will it stop?

Final Score: Definitely worth a read.

UPDATE: This book is available at Southworth Library through interlibrary loan.

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