What’s the big idea of The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations? At its heart the book pits two distinct styles of organizations against each other: centralized and decentralized. The metaphor they use is that a spider (centralized) can lose a leg or even two…but when it loses its head–it’s toast! On the other hand you’ve got a starfish (decentralized), which can lose a leg and just grow another leg. Amazingly, some species of starfish can not only grow another leg, but the lost leg can grow into its own starfish! Now, that’s a decentralized organization!
What does the metaphor mean? Spider organizations (hierarchical, centralized) like the NY Times classifieds have a very tough time competing against starfish organizations (nonhierarchical, decentralized) like Craigslist.
The book starts off with a 90 page examination of ideas like Kazaa, Craigslist, Wikipedia, and Alcoholics Anonymous. It is very readable, much like Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and The Tipping Point. In other words, it flies by. Later today I’ll get to the back half of the book, which takes a more practical look at the sweet spot between the two extremes. Think Apple and iTunes.