Book Review – The Starfish and the Spider

I recently finished listening to the audio book “The Starfish and the Spider” by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom. I had been wanting to review this book for some time and wasn’t disappointed in the ways it challenged me. The main idea promoted by the book was the power of a decentralized organization. Using the metaphor of the Starfish as the decentralized movement and the Spider as an established company with a hierarchy, the authors begin to share stories about recent movements that were essentially leaderless and grew exponentially. Examples include Craigslist, Skype, Alcoholics Anonymous, and eBay just to name a few.

I will add that in the end chapters of the book, the authors also show the benefits of a hybrid model that include some layer of centralized command with several connected departments that are decentralized. They used General Electric as an example of this with well known leader Jack Welch breaking up the company into decentralized units that were accountable to themselves to be profitable while at the same time, all working under his leadership. The main thrust from the book was for us to consider a model of decentralization where individuals can respond quicker, are accountable, and growth isn’t stymied by one person.

I began to think about this in terms of the church (since I AM a pastor) and what a leaderless decentralized movement would look like. It occurred to me that Jesus launched what could be considered as the first decentralized movement when he took the power out of the hands of the religious leaders of his day and put it into the hands of ordinary men. The Starfish metaphor was chosen by the authors because if you cut up a starfish to try to kill it, each piece only grows into a new starfish. You can’t “cut off its head” to stop it’s movement. Going back to the early church, we could reason that Jesus poured his life into the disciples knowing that the religious leaders would try to stop his movement by killing him, in essence, trying to cut off the head of the group. In doing so, the religious leaders spawned a starfish movement by his disciples that overtook the entire known countryside within just a few generations. The political leaders tried to kill off individuals to quash the movement but in doing so, they only generated a greater response.

Leaders in many different types of organizations may feel threatened by a decentralized movement but the reality is that it is already taking place and we will likely have to deal with it at some point. The hybrid that the authors point to near the end of the book seems to be ideal in that when some accountability is needed, centralized authority must develop. The authors point to eBay as a perfect example of this model. They are very decentralized but build trust in the user base by using paypal and other verification systems to validate sellers so that people have a lessened chance of getting ripped off. That layer of accountability is what keeps eBay popular with its user base.

In all, The Starfish and the Spider is an excellent book for your reading and/or listening pleasure. I would highly recommend it.

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Book Review – The Starfish and the Spider

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