A starfish is one of the most interesting marine animals. When an arm is lost, a new one soon grows in its place. More surprising than this, if you cut off one of the arms and leave it in the sea, the arm regenerates an entire starfish. It is an animal that you cannot kill by cutting off its head because it has no head.
Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom make an interesting analysis of decentralized organizations of the 21st century in their book “The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.” Using the metaphors of the starfish and the spider, they define the organizations with heads and without heads. The spider resembles a traditional organization that has a head and the starfish resembles a modern organization that is decentralized.
The Internet is the most decentralized organization of today’s world. Brafman and Beckstrom give an interesting example of the war between mp3 song downloading systems and record companies. When a record company sues and has one mp3 downloading site closed, the first company becomes two new companies; and they start to provide new mp3 downloading programs and sites. They are like starfish; if you try to destroy one of them, you will only double the number of these companies.
Brafman and Beckstrom tell the story of Aztecs and Incas. Spanish commanders with very small troops followed a simple strategy against the Aztecs and Incas, which had armies a thousand times bigger than theirs. Spanish commanders first approached Inca and Aztec kings, offering gifts, and were able to capture them. When Inca and Aztec armies lost their chiefs, they did not know what to do and lost the war. However, the same game did not work against the Apaches to the north. When Spanish armies tried to conquer North America, they couldn’t cope with them because the Apaches consisted of self-organized groups without formal leaders.
In today’s business environment, Wikipedia, iPhone applications, blogs, and some other products and services can be defined as “starfish organizations.” Take Wikipedia, for example: 200 million people contribute to and write articles for Wikipedia and it has no formal leader. It is the same for Facebook. The founders of these organizations are not the leaders of these societies. However, Mark Zuckerberg and Jimmy Wales can be described as system providers or catalysts. Instead of leading, they provide operational systems and people act freely on these structures.
Steve Jobs of iPhone, iPad and iPod is a bit different than the above examples. Everybody is free to write an application for the iPhone, but you have to use the Apple Store in order to buy or sell these applications. And when you use the Apple Store, Steve Jobs earns money. In the iPhone example, the sweet spot is not in the totally decentralized organizations, it is in between the centralized and decentralized organizations. Wikipedia is totally decentralized and it doesn’t generate a big amount of money when compared to Apple’s iPhone. The iPhone apparatus and applications are based on an organization which has a head, Jobs. On the other hand they also monitor the application business, which is independent and decentralized.
“The Starfish and the Spider” is the most thought-provoking book of the past 10 years, in my opinion. There are only a few books in the field of management that leave questions in your mind, and this book is one of them. Since I read the book, I have been thinking about my small training company and its leader, which is me. I understand that somehow I have to kill the leader of the company and find a way to provide voluntary contributions from my customers. Even though it is not mentioned in the book, I have to underline that one new but indirect concept of the book is the death of customer focus. This book proves that it is the era of customer participation in production and operations and that the era of customer focus is over. I definitely advise you to read and discuss the approaches in the book, especially within your own organization.