December 6th, 2006


The Starfish and the Spider

I recently finished reading The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom. This is book about the power of leaderless organizations and the effect of decentralization. It is a really good read. Of course I always like books that describe something articulately that is something that I really believe in but haven't developed a clear theory in my head.

The Spider is an example of a centralized organization that is controlled by the brain in the head and can easily be stopped by damaging the head. If you cut off a leg it can limp along but it doesn't get replaced. The starfish on the other hand has no brain. Its five arms are complete in themselves. If you cut one off, the main body grows a replacement and the one arm grows another four so you have 2 starfish.

They describe lots of examples such as the big record companies vs. Napster/Kazaa/edonkey/emule each of which became even more decentralized and harder to stop whereas the big record/media companies couldn't move fast enough to deal with this enemy.

Another example is the Apache vs. the Spanish invaders who were not able to disrupt this strongly distributed organization for a very long period of time as compared to the invasion of Mexico by Cortez who was able to beat the Aztecs (who were also) in no time by tricking Montezuma and then killing him.

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You can think of lots of potential examples where rigid organization prevents something from being done. The other day at the City Council meeting the DPW director was explaining that it was too hard to regularly check all the disabled person's ramps from sidewalk to street so it is only done every 5 years. Now, every day Parking Control officers walk down essentially every street in Cambridge either enforcing meter violations or resident parking violations. Why couldn't they report ramp errors? Sorry wrong department. The post office can't remove graffiti from mail boxes rapidly because they have one graffiti remover and he doesn't know where the graffiti is and can't cruise all the streets. Of course everyday each mail box is visited by a postal worker - usually multiple times a day - why can't they report the instances of graffiti?