Thursday, January 31, 2008

Book Review: The Starfish and the Spider

I just finished reading this book and I am very impressed. The authors, Brafman and Beckstrom, did their homework and developed an excellent argument in favor of decentralization in organizations. The book encourages management to allow line workers to take ownership of their labor with the knowledge that they will resolve inefficiencies and errors.

The book contrasts the spider (characterized by top-down management) with the starfish (which is headless and decentralized). The authors give us a look into the management of decentralized organizations like Craigslist, Wikipedia, the blogosphere, and even al Qaeda. They start with a discussion of the last decade of legal battles the recording industry has launched against online music piracy and conclude what most instinctively realize: that the music industry is desparately clinging to a business model that will soon be dead.

Brafman and Beckstrom describe the key operating principles of decentralized organizations. They identify the need for a pre-existing network to building upon, the importance of personal catalysts and champions to activate the organization, the development of independent "circles" as the primary organizational system, and "ideology" as the glue that holds it all together. All in all, the provide a very simple framework that most anyone can follow to take advantage of the strength of leaderless organizations.

They also discuss hybrid organizations that use both centralized and decentralized methods. This is the most valuable part of the book, in my opinion, as it delivers magnificent ideas for maximizing productivity and profits by ceding control of business processes to those most capable of perfecting them. The authors talk about finding the "sweet spot" where the blend of both systems works in perfect harmony. They also warn that the sweet spot changes over time so it is a constant struggle to locate. Basically stated, a company must determine the ideal blend of anonymity and free-flowing information of decentralization and the controlled, accountable and secure aspects of a centralized organization.

This book only scratches the surface of this incredibly complex topic. As we study and learn more about decentralized systems it becomes increasingly obvious that the key to the entire experiment is trust. We must trust the community of members that make up the "circles" that identify any decentralized organization. We must trust that the many can make better choices than the few. This especially works when all those involved share a common ideology.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more. While Brafman and Beckstrom give some good advice for implementing more decentralization, it is by necessity very vague and non-specific. It is an easy read and will open your eyes to some new management concepts.

R-Squared Computing - Business Technology Experts