Equipping God's People to Create Missional Culture

The Starfish and the Spider by Brafman and Beckstrom – A Literary Review

The following that I am going to review was a rich and insightful read.  I was both challenged and encouraged by the illustrative examples and mind blowing thoughts.  The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom is a great book to read to understand the power of decentralization.

I basically start with my sense of the author’s thesis, followed by a general overview of the book, and then I focus on themes that are pertinent to my research. With that said, here is my review.

Brafman and Beckstrom make the claim that organizations fall into two basic categories: tradition top-down organizations (spiders) and leaderless organizations that rely on peer relationships (starfish), and believe that every organization ought to consider the power of the starfish (decentralization).

The authors discuss how fragile and inefficient centralized organizations can be, and how decentralized organizations – which seem disorganized – are often more adaptable and durable.  They provide many examples to support the power of decentralization like the Apache’s, AA, Al Qaeda, Burning Man, the brain as well as the open source revolution (Napster, Skype, Craigslist, Wikipedia, the blogosphere, the Internet). The metaphor is this: though a starfish and spider appear to be structured similarly, when you cut off the head of a spider, it dies.  But when you cut a starfish in half, you get two starfish.  They explain how a decentralized organization is built on five legs and how difficult it is to “take on” a decentralized organization.  The primary weakness of a starfish organization appears to be when resources come into the picture.  “The moment you introduce property rights into the equation, everything changes, the starfish organization turns into a spider” (154).  They mention some of the strengths of centralization.  And then they close by introducing the hybrid organization and how to find the sweet spot between centralization and decentralization.

Understanding the five legs of the decentralized organization can be helpful for the church.  They are (1) Circles, (2) The Catalyst, (3) Ideology, (4) The Preexisting Network and (5) The Champion. “Because circles don’t have hierarchy and structure, it’s hard to maintain rules within them; no one really has the power to enforce them…  instead of rules, they depend on norms” (90)  AA has norms – the twelve steps and mutual care, Wikipedia has norms – ways for editing entries, burning man has norms – it operates as a gift community.  Norms are the backbone of circles.  Rules are someone else’s idea of what you should do, norms are doing what you have signed up to do.

The Catalyst is someone who forms a circle then quietly fades into the background.  Catalysts let go of leadership and transfer leadership to the circle. The authors say that the catalysts have many characteristics, including: a genuine interest in others, loose connections, mapping, a desire to help, passion, the ability to meet people where they are, emotional intelligence, trust, inspiration, tolerance for ambiguity and a hands off approach. (120-128) “The catalyst is like the architect of a house: he’s essential to the long-term structural integrity, but he doesn’t move in.” (94)

Ideology is about being motivated about the same mission, and this mission connects with other preexisting networks, and the champions take things to the next level.  Champions are promoters, salesmen, friendly, hyperactive and work well in nonhierarchical environments.

Chapter 7 on hybrid organizations (Amazon, eBay, Intuit, Sun, IMB, Oprah, Google, Toyota) is a needed read for church leaders today, as is chapter 8 on finding the sweet spot.  If we want to do ministry in the context that we find ourselves in, and if we want to survive, there is much we need to learn from The Starfish and the Spider.

2 Responses to The Starfish and the Spider by Brafman and Beckstrom – A Literary Review

  1. Pingback: Dream Awakener » A Primer on Today’s Missional Church

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