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The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations

3.87  ·  Rating details ·  5,212 ratings  ·  430 reviews
If you cut off a spider’s leg, it’s crippled; if you cut off its head, it dies. But if you cut off a starfish’s leg it grows a new one, and the old leg can grow into an entirely new starfish.
What’s the hidden power behind the success of Wikipedia, Craigslist, and Skype? What do eBay and General Electric have in common with the abolitionist and women’s rights movements? Wha
Hardcover, 230 pages
Published October 5th 2006 by Portfolio (first published 2006)
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Jenny (Reading Envy)
Organizations that are not centralized are powerful and almost impossible to kill. This is the message of this book. I was hoping it would be more prescriptive, as I could benefit from learning how to adopt principles of a starfish in circumstances at work, with two librarians down in my group. How can we function better so that when someone leaves, or is on leave, we can fill in those gaps more fluidly?

The book is really more of a description of leaderless organizations, from the side of the st
Great! I wish Brafman had written this, and I could have read it, decades ago.

Brafman's thesis is that a centrally controlled organization is slowed by that central control, and can be paralyzed if something interferes with that system, while organizations that share a philosophy and goal, a knowledge base, and a methodology, but are not centrally managed, can't be stopped by a single point of failure. For one example, compare the dismal performance of centrally controlled industries and economi
I am happy I finally scratched this one off the list. Starfish and the Spider studies very distributed organizations. What the heck does that mean? Good question. We have been fighting them for decades. Terrorists. They operate in small, loosely networked cells. There really is no "leadership" per se. There are just cells and cells and cells. We wipe one out....there is usually another one the next day. One would say this is job security run rampant for us military types. Others would say these ...more
Sarah Hanawald
Apr 12, 2009 rated it it was ok
I read this book a while ago, but a recent conversation caused me to revisit it. It's a pretty interesting read, but doesn't, to my mind, provide any major insights. It is true that de-centralized organizations are really hard to topple. The authors make this point again and again, coming back repeatedly to Napster and online file sharing as their prime example.

The thing is, that all the successful organizations they profile started with pretty low stakes. How many kids came up with ideas for so
Lorna Pryor
Jul 03, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This book has the clue to the answer as to what we are to do about the corporations and the government ruining our country. It is OUR country. All of ours. Armed revolution is not the answer. It never works in the long run. We must do something that does work. Read this book and start thinking how it applies to everyday life. Remember geographic locations are real and people are real. Governments and "nations" are not real. They are made up, just like high school football teams, clouds, or Capta ...more
Apr 01, 2010 rated it it was ok
If you liked this book, you will also like The Cluetrain Manifesto. While I enjoyed the book, it felt to lack the weight of a definitive work. It seemed like they had a theory and found a few examples that would support it rather than deeply studying a phenomenon and finding the intrinsic nature of it. I also think that the authors allowed their politics (not a capital P) slip into the book just enough to reinforce that feeling that they had an agenda rather than reporting on a world-changing ag ...more
Jon Beadle
Jan 12, 2019 rated it really liked it
Jun 22, 2009 rated it really liked it
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Beau Raines
May 03, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This is one of those books that makes me feel both wowed and sad at the same time. This book gives great examples of the power of decentralization and letting the team or organization run itself. At the same time, it points out the weaknesses of very centralized organizations. Through these I see characteristics of teams I've been on and the way I want to work and the shortcomings of teams I'm on and been on and realize why they struggled.

The authors demonstrate the difference between starfish
Russ Sanderlin
Apr 29, 2018 rated it liked it
I gave this book 3 stars because it is a little outdated in the examples they use to reinforce their idea of a decentralized (starfish) organization. With those handful of examples they continued to ride them hard though the book.

That’s not to say it’s not worth a quick read as there are a few good messages that come across in the book if you pay attention. There is an example about an individual that builds networks of people and it gives great insight on what is going through their mind to bu
Sep 09, 2012 rated it really liked it
A great contributor to my learning about distributed networks. Using existing platforms to build from was my biggest ah-ha. I didn't know I had so much to thank the Quakers for. I'm also pretty excited about reading the essays of the abolitionists. I can see platforms everywhere now and it's helping me think about how I can further decentralize a few new business models I'm working on.

An unexpected bonus/drag: this book was also a lens into US foreign affairs. When I read the chapter on centrali
Mark Moon
Informal, short, and light on detail. Some (rather scattered) good examples of organizations at various levels of centralization, including some discussion near the end on organizations featuring a mixture of centralized and decentralized features. Not very meaty, but easy to digest and containing some food for thought.
Ralf Kruse
Jun 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Highly inspiring on how distributed control works and great stories around it. Made me think different on organizational design and how to use distribution as strength to build an adaptive system.
Before the book I thought I was already progressive and after it I saw multiple inspiring ways to grow and look different.
Jan 23, 2011 rated it really liked it
The book isn't profound, but it's an easy read that provides an effective contrast between hierarchical management and empowering human initiative and creativity. ...more
Aug 04, 2020 rated it really liked it
Interesting breakdown and analysis of centralised and decentralised organisations. At about the halfway mark, I realised that the analysis succeeded because it was anecdotal. There are some insights to be had, but it really requires someone deeply dedicated to implementation to be able to bring those insights to fruition.

Overall the book was an easy, light read, laid out with interesting stories. However, the depth that one expects from an instructive book is missing. This is both a good and ba
Ashrut Arya
Jul 05, 2020 rated it really liked it
If I had to explain the book concisely, I'd say apply the following quote in business, and you've got yourself the summary of the book - "If you cut off a spider’s leg, it’s crippled; if you cut off its head, it dies. But if you cut off a starfish’s leg it grows a new one, and the old leg can grow into an entirely new starfish."

Essentially, the book talks about the power of decentralization in large businesses, and how it can prove to work wonders for its growth. The author takes up case studies
David Drummond
Jan 31, 2021 rated it liked it
Probably more original when it first came out (before decentralized systems became so popular), this touts the benefits of loosely led organizations that rely on network effects. It's written in the mould of Malcolm Gladwell's style of making arguments through chronicling interesting characters, but less witty. I would have also appreciated more focus on the systems than the "catalysts", even if that contradicts traditional "business book style". It's reasonably short, but could have achieved th ...more
Feb 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Well written and easy to read book about big ideas. They use case studies and historical examples to make their framework accessible. They also offer practical advice on how to work with decentralized structures like differentiating your catalyst from your champion and understanding the different roles the two of them play.
Ian Constable
Feb 17, 2020 rated it really liked it
Decentralize, empower your employees by granting them autonomy, establish guidelines and limits but not hard and fast regulations (commanders intent for those with military backgrounds), don’t be afraid to adapt, reward successful ideas but don’t punish bad ones.

I don’t think all of the ideas in this book are applicable or have enough successful examples to be proven, but it has enough good ideas to be read or listened to. 5.5 hour listen.
Josh Hovance
Aug 11, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Excellent read. Reads a lot like a Malcolm Gladwell book, but with more of an emphasis on a single concept of “Starfish Organizations” directly relating to business and organizations. These concepts are relevant to me in the Marine Corps because the idea of “decentralization” is paramount in USMC doctrine. Would recommend to anyone trying to improve their business and/or organization.
Nov 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Must read if you like to understand how civilizations, society and organizations operate, the deeper pattern and meaning behind the structure and working of these social institutions.
Michael Richardson
Oct 21, 2018 rated it really liked it
Not as life-changing as a lot of other people said it would be, but it brings up some fine examples of how organizations adapted in times of change. A very quick read, though I just didn't put the time in to get it done in a short period of time. ...more
B.J. Richardson
Dec 09, 2017 rated it really liked it
This is a great business leadership book that has principles that can be applied to any organization. Brafman compares and contrasts centralized business models (spiders) with decentralized ones (starfish) with an obvious preference for and focus on the latter. He shows how you can spot decentralized organizations, what makes them work, and also what their potential weaknesses are. While the book is not yet that old, many of the examples he uses are already outdated. While the principles are sti ...more
Tommy Kiedis
Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom's 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" (p. 5). The authors argue (and seek to prove) that while "decentralized organizations appear at first glance to be messy and chaotic," they can be a powerful force ("one of the most powerful forces") when fully realized and developed (p. 208).

Be aware, what follows was intended as a review. It has become a summary review.

Brafman and
Everett Probasco
Feb 05, 2021 rated it liked it
The book in 4 words: Decentralized organizations are resilient.
G Stephen
Aug 30, 2007 rated it really liked it
A Summary -

The Starfish and the Spider—the unstoppable power of leaderless organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod A Beckstrom

If you want to know about organizations like YWAM, read this book.

This book is an excellent story about centralized, decentralized and hybrid organizations. If you want to kill a spider, cut off its head. You cannot cut off the head of a starfish as it does not have one. If cut off the leg of an starfish, it will grow another.......starfish. This shows how decentralized org
Ian Fleischmann
Jan 22, 2015 rated it it was ok
This is probably on your boss's reading list right next to his/her Malcolm Gladwell collection.
I found Brafman's phrasing to be boring. His writing style just doesn't do it for me. Content-wise, I find it hard to accept the unstoppable power of leaderless organizations as a premise. Resilience perhaps, but not power. It also doesn't help that his flagship example (Napster) has been sued into submission and sold to Rhapsody a 'spider-like' organizations.
Brafman would do better to present more exp
Joshua Bowen
Sep 27, 2015 rated it liked it
I re-read this book to see if I could glean ideas and principles that I could apply to commanding my company. Unfortunately, I didn't find anything really applicable. Further, it was quite a repetitive book and seemed to drag on a lot.
However, after reading the book, I read The Chaos Imperative (same author) and it brought up a great point about Starfish/Spider. It addressed utilizing the principles in this book to analyze our enemy. The military operates in a complex world against a hybrid thre
Sep 01, 2009 rated it really liked it
Great, great book. You find it under "Management and Leadership" at B&N but I promise that it doesn't read like a text book. Very interesting and a very easy read; explains how and why leaderless organizations (starfish) thrive and how structured, top down organizations (spiders) run into trouble and sometimes fail. Not saying that all structured organizations/companies with a CEO fail but it shows how organizations/institutions like AA, Wikipedia, online music sharing, Craigslist, terrorist org ...more
Jimmy Ele
Sep 13, 2015 rated it liked it
This was an interesting read. The parts I liked the best were about the spiritual leaders of the Apache and how they survived against their various enemies. Other than that the book goes into other organizations such as Wikipedia and how they work without a leader. It then goes into the pros and cons of both centralized organizations and decentralized organizations. I enjoyed the book for the new information that I was able to learn about. The concept of the starfish for decentralized organizati ...more
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22 likes · 28 comments
“In open organizations, a catalyst is the person who initiates a circle and then fades away into the background.” 3 likes
“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. When the Spanish destroyed their villages, the Apaches might have surrendered if the villages had been crucial to their society. But they weren't. Instead, the Apaches abandoned their old houses and became nomads. (Try to catch us now.)” 2 likes
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