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  • Writer's pictureSarah Carter

Pros and Cons

It took me a while to get into this book. I struggled to get past the feeling of being back in college with how much it initially felt like a text book. I kept reminding myself that several good friends had recommended it but I almost stopped half way through. I persevered and it was totally worth it! I actually ended up rereading some of the first few chapters to see how they tie into the last few in order to build my second post on this book but let's not get ahead of our selves. Let's start at the beginning with the intriguing title because that is certainly what caught my attention.

A spider walks into a bar and the bartender asks what's your poison?

That is about as much as I thought a spider could have to do with an organization before reading this book. I do not have a starfish joke, good or otherwise, so I certainly did not think that they could have anything to do with organizations or leadership but Brafman and Beckstrom changed my tone. The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations starts with a text book flavor because initially the authors are taking the qualities of starfish and spiders and applying them to business organization using corporate language such as "command center," "hierarchy," "coercive," and decentralized." These words certainly were not used in high school biology but they paint a much more relatable picture to those of us who live, breath, and hear business terms daily. The authors take their time to carefully construct this comparison so they can carry the metaphor through the length of the text.

The overly simplified Sarah version of what Brafman and Beckstrom skillfully convey about starfish and spider anatomy and qualities and how they translate into business language is: Spiders have heads with brains acting as their headquarters for all decisions and movements. Cut off the head and the business dies. In contrast, "the starfish doesn't have a brain. There is no central command" page 33. Their intelligence is spread out to their far reaches to the point that if you cut off any remote portion of the business will regenerate, replicate, and continue on about its starfishy business. Spiders are centralized, hierarchical organizations where all decisions, goals, visions, etcetera comes from the top down. Starfish are open, decentralized organizations where everyone has input and the expectation of contribution. Sounds wonderfully utopian huh? Not so fast, let's examine the pros and cons of the starfish existance before you jump to that conclusion.


"Open systems are about the users, not about the leadership" page 67. Brafman and Beckstrom use the example of the big record labels versus the Napsters, Kazaas, and eMules (yeah, I had not heard of them either, check it out on Wikipedia) to demonstrate this point. The record labels are spending millions of dollars on lawsuits against these popup decentralized foes to protect their profits while the challengers are literally giving music away for free. Napster, Kazaa, and eMule were/are free, user focused decentralized music sharing platforms that when one is taken down by the record label lawsuits another even more decentralized site appears in its place.

"When you give people freedom, you get chaos, but you also get incredible creativity" page 81. Picture a kindergarten art class. The teacher passes out huge sheets of paper to each child and arms them with four different color paints and one brush issuing the only instruction of "paint whatever you want." After a moment of hesitation chaos ensues, paint gets everywhere, clothes are ruined, and incredibly diverse works of art are created to adorn fridge doors with for a week until the next one comes home. Same scenario regarding decentralized starfish organizations. Initially there is hesitation followed by chaos as norms, expectations, and format evolve but it all finally leads to creative new takes on established processes.

"Instead of rules, [decentralized organizations] depend on norms...members enforce the norms with one another" page 90. "Ideology is the glue that holds decentralized organizations together" page 95. Brafman and Beckstrom use Wikipedia as an example for ideology and users enforcing norms. Wikipedia's vision statement is inspired: "Imagine a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge. That’s our commitment." A whole bunch of like minded happy-to-contribute people, striving for the same inspired ideal, come together to back the progress of the organization. Their shared values created the norms and they support/enforce them. If someone is not adhering to the norms, the group decides the action to take not a headquarters (because there is none).


"In a decentralized organization, there's no clear leader, no hierarchy, and no headquarters" page 19. Who is in charge? What are the policies? Where is the rulebook? None of these questions have easy answers in a decentralized organization which can make it difficult to describe and, more importantly, difficult to understand and daunting to join. There are no supervisors, annual reviews, or promotions. Everyone is at the same level which is intimidating to those of us who are used to picturing the good ol'corporate ladder. It requires a different mindset, a different way of interacting with coworkers, and possibly another job because...

"As industries become decentralized, overall profits decrease. Introduce starfish into the equation and wave good-bye to high profits" page 45. Dream of having that five story brown stone on the upper east side of Manhattan? Then decentralized organizations probably are not in your future. Profits in the record label business are decreasing because of the constant creation of new "free music for all my friends" organizations. Music artists are relying more and more on concerts and other appearances to make money so they need record companies less and less which is a scary place to be in if you are a record company CEO. Next up, the film industry.

"To collect money, you generally need to have an account somewhere, which leads to centralization...Hence the dilemma: either be somewhat centralized and face lawsuits, or be completely decentralized and produce no revenues" page 60. No lawsuits? Awesome, but again no money to fill the dream-house jar.

"Circles [decentralized organizations] don't have hierarchy and structure, its hard to maintain rules within them; no one really has the power to enforce them" page 90. In starfish organizations, if your coworker takes all the paper from your printer weekly, deletes your profile from the company website, or takes all of the vowel keys off your keyboard there is no supervisor you can inform. You are the supervisor along with all the other well behaved members of the group and it is on you to recommend corrective action then to ensure it is enforced. Some of you may be thinking "that is exactly what I've always wanted" while others are thinking "that practically spells conflict and disfuction."

A level structure, with little or no revenue, that relies on all members to hold each other, and themselves, to the ideals and norms of the group is definitely not for everyone. Conclusion: "Phenomenal cosmic power! Itty bitty living space" Aladdin, 1992. The pros and cons are so drastically devisive in this situation that being wholely one type of organization without elements from the other sounds unsustainable. Thank goodness there is a middle ground! A happy hybrid combines the best of both worlds and it is the wave of the future. That is our topic for the next blog post. Come on back, with a day-after-Thanksgiving turkey sandwich in hand, to see what the benefits of a good blend can be.

As always, I would love to hear from you. Please leave comments below, shoot me an email, or leave a heart on Instagram. If you're finished with this book and want to get ahead, our next book starting in December will be Brave Enough to Succeed: 40 Strategies for Getting Unstuck by Valorie Burton.

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