I finished reading Ori Brafman and Rod Becksrom’s excellent ‘The Starfish and the Spider’ over the weekend. This is another of those books, such as The World is Flat / Wikinomics etc that really should be a must read for anyone with an interest in how being more decentralised in business can help to make your more efficient.
The books title asks use to view the world and organisations within it as spiders or starfish. At first glance they look quite similar, but in reality they are very different.
The Spider: Eight legs, a head. Whilst a spider could probably survive without a leg or two, if you cut off its head it dies. This represents a centralised organisation, with traditional top down structure. If you kill the leader then you can defeat/kill the organisation.
The Starfish: Looks a lot like a spider but it doesn’t have a head. In fact its major organs are replicated throughout its body, so that if you cut off ‘a leg’ or cut it in hard, it will grow back the missing piece. This represents the decentralised organisation.
The book then goes on to look at how these two creatures work – with some interesting examples – the Apaches being one of the most fascinating (particularly the information on how they were eventually ‘defeated’). Other classic starfish organisations are Alcoholics Anonymous, Al Qaeda, and eMule. The authors eventually argue that the way forward is to create or become a hybrid organisation – and identifies eBay as such a creature.
My favourite part of the book is the section on catalysts. Catalysts are identified as one of the 5 ‘legs’ (arms) of the Starfish; the others being: Circles, ideology; preexisting networks and champions.
Concept of the Catalyst in the book is explained via reference to Julie Andrews’ characters in The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins. In both cases the characters descend into the lives of the dysfunctional family and helps sort things out. The difference between traditional leader and catalyst is that: at the end of The Sound of Music, Maria sticks around and maintains her leadership role in the Von Trappe set up whilst Mary Poppins “chim-chim-in-eys right out of London”. As the authors explain: “It’s not that Mary Poppins has a fear of commitment. From the very beginning, it’s clear that she has come to do a job. Her job is complete when the family can thrive on it’s own”.
I though this was a good way to explain the role of a catalyst.
The book ends with a list of 10 ‘new rules of the game’
1. Diseconomies of Scale
2. The Network Effect
3. The Power of Chaos
4. Knowledge at the Edge
5. Everyone wants to Contribute
6. Beware the Hydra Response
7. Catalysts Rule
8. The Values are the Organisation
9. Measure, Monitor and Manage
10. Flatten or be Flattened
I’m not going to tell you what was expanded on in these points – go buy the book!. But what I will say is that whilst the book is an easy read, and some of it is a little obvious, I think that is no bad thing. We often need reminding of the obvious in life as things can tend to become so obvious that we miss or overlook them.
A really enjoyable book and one that has given more ideas and thoughts on our current wiki project at CC, and has reinforced my view that we’re going in the right direction.