The Starfish and the Spider: 8 Principles of Decentralization

“The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations” by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom is still one of my favorite books on organizational theory and complex systems.

The starfish represents decentralized “organizations” while the spider describes hierarchical command-and-control structures. In reviewing the book, the Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum wrote that “[it has] not only stimulated my thinking, but as a result of the reading, I proposed ten action points for my own organization.”

The Starfish and the Spider is about “what happens when there’s no one in charge. It’s about what happens when there’s no hierarchy. You’d think there would be disorder, even chaos. But in many arenas, a lack of traditional leadership is giving rise to powerful groups that are turning industry and society upside down.” The book draws on a series of case studies that illustrate 8 Principles of Decentralization. I include these below with short examples.

1. When attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more open and decentralized:

Not only did the Apaches survive the Spanish attacks, but amazingly, the attacks served to make them even stronger. When the Spanish attacked them, the Apaches became even more decentralized and even more difficult to conquer (21).

2. It’s easy to mistake starfish for spiders:

When we first encounter a collection of file-swapping teenagers, or a native tribe in the Arizona desert, their power is easy to overlook. We need an entirely different set of tools in order to understand them (36).

3. An open system doesn’t have central intelligence; the intelligence is spread throughout the system:

It’s not that open systems necessarily make better systems. It’s just that they’re able to respond more quickly because each member has access to knowledge and the ability to make direct use of it (39).

4. Open systems can easily mutate:

The Apaches did not—and could not—plan ahead about how to deal with the European invaders, but once the Spanish showed up, Apache society easily mutated. They went from living in villages to being nomads. The decision didn’t have to be approved by headquarters (40).

5. The decentralized organization sneaks up on you:

For a century, the recording industry was owned by a handful of corporations, and then a bunch of hackers altered the face of the industry. We’ll see this pattern repeat itself across different sectors and in different industries (41).

6. As industries become decentralized, overall profits decrease:

The combined revenues of the remaining four [music industry giants] were 25 percent less than they had been in 2001. Where did the revenues go? Not to P2P players [Napster]. The revenue disappeared (50).

7. Put people into an open system and they’ll automatically want to contribute:

People take great care in making the articles objective, accurate, and easy to understand [on Wikipedia] (74).

8. When attacked, centralized organizations tend to become even more centralized:

As we saw in the case of the Apaches and the P2P players, when attacked decentralized organizations become even more decentralized (139).

Patrick Phillipe Meier

22 responses to “The Starfish and the Spider: 8 Principles of Decentralization

  1. I enjoyed your blog posting and am glad you liked the book!

  2. Good summary. The Starfish and the Spider is an excellent book and very relevant to online activism, so it’s great to see these principles get more visibility.

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  6. lafayette sennacherib

    Sounds like an interesting book. I wish you had explained here what starfishes and spiders have to do with it. Sorry to be a downer and state the obvious but – where are the Apaches now?

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  10. NICE.

  11. Thanks Patrick, very interesting. The fascinating element is that organizations or “establishments” can rarely integrate these recommendations.

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