Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Book Review Tuesday: The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations

In a break with my usual reading subject matter, from time to time I step clean off of the ranch into other topics that, strangely enough, loop right back to where I started!

The book that is under review here is the paperback by Ori Brafman and Rod A Beckstrom.  The specific edition is copyright 2006 and is published by Decentralized Revolution, LLC; ISBN # 978-1-59184-183-8.  Readers with some area specific knowledge and background may suss out why I picked this up off the shelf, I'll get to that in due time.

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Link to Purchase a Copy of Starfish and Spider

Organizational behavior, business success and decentralization of management are the topics which you will find the Library of Congress has pigeonholed this book into.   The overall concept of the book is in the title.  The differences in organizational topology between the Starfish, where each part can function on its own and regenerate the complete organization is contrasted with Spiders, where all legs join at a single point of failure.

How the content of this book applies to you may pale in comparison in its applicability to the youth of America.  The very youth that has grown up with "peer to peer" media sharing, a concept of a sharing economy where things other than currency are traded (consider the "Burning Man" economy).  America's youth has known nothing but a trend towards decentralization in many aspects of life - homeschooling on the rise, open source software and the like.  While you may read this and "get it", they have sublimated this into their lives in a way that older generations may not be aware of.  This concept oddly leads to Libertarianism as well as concurrent attraction to socialism among the young.  It is a vexing question with no clear resolution... yet.

An early chapter in the book details how a critical business deal was made by convincing French investors that one man was the "President of the Internet", as there was no other conceptual model for them to be comfortable with - a clear example of spider mentality.  Laughable as that idea may be, consider that American military strategy in many places appears to be an ongoing series of drone and SOF strikes to "take out key terror figures".  Afterwards, "terror" continues unabated.  That is the core of the issue with starfish organizations and spider organizations... spiders when squashed, die.  Starfish just multiply and seem to operate off a hive mind.  As the authors point out on page 36, "the second principle of decentralization: it's easy to mistake starfish for spiders"

A critical analogy in the book concerns the Apaches, and how they were able to survive for hundreds of years while fighting colonization.  The key was in a decentralized model of authority of "command and control (C2)". With no apparent leader, hierarchy or headquarters, such organizations are hard to attack or even comprehend.  It is this point where the idea of Starfish = Apache models comes together.  It is a comparison of open systems versus coercive systems.  Per the authors, "the first major principle of decentralization: "when attacked, a decentralized organization tends to become even more open and decentralized".

An important graph with a seemingly useless title "The Music Industry: From Starfish to Spider and back again"can be seen on page 44.  Although I don't have a digital copy of that, I will relate its' content as follows:
In 1890, the music industry was composed of many small independent musicians.  In  1945, it had become a large group of independent record labels.  By 1970-ish to 2000, it was "the Big Five" labels.  Then, the decentralization of the internet smashed it with Napster, circa 2001, developing into a decentralized peer to peer system today (P2P).

I have linked to Rod Beckstrom's "Google Talk" author series at the end of this post, where he discusses how the mainstream record giant MGM eventually beat the file sharing software at the Supreme Court, but how the "win" didn't matter in the long term (at about the 23 minute mark). That evolution and diffusion is applicable to the Liberty Movement.

This organic model of birth, growth, plateau and fission into a new paradigm is what the decentralization model is about, even if you don't give a rat's end for the music industry.  The model applies as well to military affairs as seen in "battling" terrorism, the "little green men" in Ukraine and so forth.  The problem has become identifying key physical parts, when the game has shifted and is in the realm of concepts, ideas and ancient social and ethnic drives.

An excellent set of 10 questions are posited with examples starting on page 46 of the work.  These questions are designed to determine conceptually if you are dealing with a Starfish or a Spider organization.  These questions, while scoffed at by many in the Department of Defense, are actually applicable to the 5 sided foxhole known as the Pentagon.  As the Tyrannasaurus Rexes likely felt invulnerable, the same smugness in the E ring is going to result in a lot of "dislocations of expectations".   A two page matrix of a comparison of the Spanish Conquistadors versus the Apaches can be found on pages 54-55.  This sort of graphic will be readily adsorb-able by beltway denizens.

The balance of the book is replete with examples from the business world where starfish organizations and decentralization have triumphed over monolithic hierarchies.  I won't detail them here, as the writing is enjoyable to read and not overly laden with seriousness.  It is a work not in its own way, so I recommend that you check it out on your own.  At just over 200 pages with epilogue, you can crack this one out in a lazy afternoon with interruptions.

 Link to Purchase a Copy of Starfish and Spider

Now, back to my first paragraph- regarding the term "leaderless organizations".  Many of you are aware of the concepts espoused by various nefarious individuals who espoused "leaderless resistance".  Some were/are probable agents provocateurs and paid agents looking to stir up problems and delegitimize the concept.  However, the roots of the modern concept were authored by a United States Air Force Officer, Col Ulius Louis Amoss.  As an Intelligence Officer, he knew the issues of fighting against totalitarian regimes and he authored work on how to fight such circumstances as were occurring behind the Iron Curtain.  His works can be found here, and a related paper from RAND can be read here.  I mention this RAND presentation as food for thought.  Certainly, al Qaeda was not leaderless, but has exhibited characteristics of  leaderless organizations.  I throw that in as it is both relevant to compare and contrast with the concepts of the book and inform the audience.
Col Ulius Louis Amoss wrote in his seminal 1953 paper:
"...we do not need leaders; we need leading ideas"

This is a useful book, as it is low key and looks/reads like any other business oriented light reading you will find in any airport departure lounge shop. It is what you might get if there were a "TEd" talk on the subject but in written form (Beckstrom gives a TEd talk on his work at the link).  You can read an excerpt at  It should be right up there with Bayo's "150 Questions for a Guerrilla", in my estimation.
An excellent work that enabled the Revolution in Cuba

 Click Here to Purchase a Copy of Bayo's 150 Questions
Now before you go out and give up meat, raise free range dairy goats and grow a beard while starting a non-profit given the tone of the book, understand that the implications of the concepts are quite beneficial to the Liberty Movement and the Republic as a whole.  Go forth, read, and apply as you see fit. Knowledge is the ultimate power.

Rod Beckstrom at GOOGLE Talk Author Series
discussing "Starfish and the Spider"
June 20th, 2007, 59:39 minutes

You may also enjoy reading some of Partyzantski's previously published book reviews:

Message to Garcia

Coup D'Etat (Now back in stock)

Special Forces Guerilla Warfare Manual

Phantom Soldier

Total Resistance

Simple Sabotage Field Manual #3

Prepper's Home Defense

Book Review authored by StopShouting contributor and #FAB50 Blog Award Winner Partyzantski, the coolest cat on teh innertubes - retired Mustang, former FID embedded military Advisor, SASO trainer and scenario developer, Electronic Warfare Aviator, PME instructor, certified Force Protection and Anti-terrorism officer and combat seasoned USMC (0202) field grade intelligence officer. When not blogging or maintaining weapons proficiency at the range, he enjoys cat herding and travel to off-the-beaten-track locales. You can follow him on Twitter @Partyzantski

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mobius wolf said...

Thanks for the tip. I'll add them to the queue.

27LXrex said...

A very thorough review, as always. Looking forward to the next one, sir.