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The Starfish and the Spider

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, September 6, 2007
Updated: Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Of Apaches and e-Bay, Mary Poppins and Bill W.

It would be easy to miss the metaphysical connection between Napster, the pioneer of electronic file sharing, and the Apache Indians of the American West.

For Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, the kinship between peer to peer internet services and the relational structures among Apache tribes is a central insight into the extraordinary power of open systems. Their book, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, is the result of five years of research on decentralized organizations that achieved dramatic successes without rigid hierarchies or control by bosses and managers. Every major organ of a starfish is replicated in each of its five arms, so if an arm of starfish is severed, the arm grows a new starfish. By contrast, a spider that loses a leg is impaired and a spider that loses its head is dead. And an organization committed to strict top-down management, even when it is big and powerful, is increasingly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of cultural climate change and roiling waves of innovative competition.

Starfish-like organizations can wreak havoc on rivals. The authors see common elements that helped Wikipedia, the Internet, e-Bay, Alcoholic Anonymous and al Qaedaflourish. And they see common challenges that have beset Fortune 500 companies, and 16th Century Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and the modern entertainment industry. What is the difference between Montezuma and Geronimo? Montezuma II was the Aztec leader who presided over an advanced civilization of 15 million people from a grand palace in the capital city of Tenochtitlanin what is now Mexico. When the Spanish explorer Hernando Cortes attacked, Montezuma was killed, and Cortes’s armies swarmed over roads and aqueducts. Not long afterwards, the city’s 240,000 inhabitants were wiped out by disease and starvation, and within two years the Aztec empire collapsed.The Incas of Peru met the same fate when another Spanish army invaded a decade later, beginning Spanish dominance over South America.

While the Spanish overwhelmed centralized civilizations, Brafman and Beckstrom argue, they were never able to conquer the decentralized Apaches, who had no palaces, temples, cities, or accumulated wealth. The authors learned from an anthropologist who studied them that instead of a chief the Apaches had a Nant’an, a spiritual leader who led by example rather than force. The most famous Nant’an, they write, was Geronimo, whose people followed him because they wanted to, and who fended off adversaries for decades.

People used Napster, the brainchild of an 18-year-old college freshman, by logging into a central server and sharing music files with people all over the world. The big music labels sued, and Napster closed. But people like free music, and Napster had increasingly decentralized successors—Kazaa, Grokster, e-Donkey—with elusive owners who avoided central servers and obvious business addresses. Every time the labels conquered one such company, another emerged. Even though court rulings favored the big companies, E-Mule and other little per-to-peer file sharing ventures are beyond lawyers’ reach. As the authors explain it, their decentralization is unlike anything the entertainment industry has ever seen. "The software is a completely open source solution. No owner. No Montezuma. Who started e-Mule? No one knows,” Brafman and Beckstrom write. "They simply can’t be found.”

Alcoholics Anonymous has a purpose and ideology that has drawn massive membership distributed in small geographically separate circles. Its catalyst Bill W. let go when he saw AA was growing. Consider al Qaeda, with its rapid succession of mercurial leaders. How can governments fight terrorist organizations, and how can businesses compete with energetic nontraditional rivals?

Brafman and Beckstrom return to the starfish. In the late 1990s, they write, the coral of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia was threatened by an explosion of starfish. Divers with knives cut the starfish in half to kill them. But the starfish just multiplied. Scientists then realized pollution and rising water temperature were spurring the burgeoning starfish population. So only environmental change would stop them. To tame the power of decentralized organizations, ideology has to change. Micro loans and small businesses help change ideologies in slums, where hopelessness helps attracts recruits to terrorist cells. The authors also describe a brick-by-brick community rebuilding effort in Afghanistan, with no money or outside support, where people worked together to recover from the harsh rule and destruction of the Taliban.

Some organizations, they say, succeed by becoming hybrids. E-Bay for instance, is pure starfish. It hosts sellers and buyers who deal with each other directly and safeguard trust through a user rating system. But e-Bay’s PayPal subsidiary is based on rigid controls and secure transactions and "trust” isn’t a philosophical value. IBM bowed to decentralization by supporting Linux, the open source operating system, and designed Linux-compatible hardware and software. By doing so, the authors observe, "IBM is harnessing the collective skill of thousands of engineers working collaboratively world wide, and at no cost to IBM.” Oprah Winfrey’s production company is centralized, but she added a decentralized element with her book club, which has grown exponentially.

This is a collection of provocative, surprising and well-told stories about the social and organizational revolutions going on around us and some of the powerful forces driving the change. The examples are consistently engaging and memorable. In discussing the differences between traditional business leaders and catalysts who spark creation of organizational starfish, the authors cite the lead characters in The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins. In Sound of Music, Maria enters a dysfunctional family and helps everyone get along better. But when the movie ends, it’s clear she will stay and remain in charge. Mary Poppins, however, comes to smooth out family turbulence so its members can thrive on their own. A CEO settles in, a catalyst knows when it’s time to move on. "Once she accomplishes her goal,” Brafman and Beckstrom write, "(Mary Poppins) rides her umbrella into the sunset.”

Tags:  buscell  complexity matters  organizations 

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