The Spider and the Starfish

The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations

By Ori Brafman and Rod A. Beckstrom The-Starfish-and-the-Spider-280804

Key Take-Aways:

  • Spider organizations have a hierarchal order – they have a head and a body. In contrast Starfish organizations are decentralized because of their undifferentiated neural network.
  • Starfish organizations do not require CEOs or extensive headquarters because they are decentralized.
  • Because of this Starfish organizations are far more flexible, adaptive, and change readily.
  • In Starfish organizations culture matters more than codes of conduct.
  • When attacked centralized organizations – Spiders – become more rigid, whereas decentralized organizations – Starfish – expand and adapt.
  • Starfish organizations stand on five legs: circular structure, a catalyst which “initiates a reaction,” an ideology, a pre-existing network and a champion.
  • Put a catalyst to work if you want to promote your product in an innovative way.
  • There is a current trend of companies becoming hybrids, with traits of both Spiders and Starfish in place.


The spider is a simple organism. It has a head, body, and legs. Take away a leg or two and it can survive, but if you cut off its head it quickly dies. On the other hand a starfish has many legs, but no central neural centre. You can cut a starfish into pieces, and each piece will grow into a whole new starfish. There is no “command center”, each piece is as equally important.

Apply this to your business. Having an organization composed of many strong parts that don’t rely on a hierarchy enables it to adapt and become stronger despite change. If one person, or one aspect of your business is facing difficulties, there are still other options to keep moving forward. A spider organization relies upon its hierarchy, which makes in vulnerable. If something were to happen to that head, the command center, chaos would ensue.

A spider organization is hierarchal, highly structured, and have an extensive headquarters operation. Starfish organizations have no formal leader, and are highly flexible and adaptive. Each working group deals directly with each other, instead of passing through a structured system. “Decentralization brings out creativity, but it also creates variance”.

The key to a starfish organization is operating on five legs. These five legs are:

  1. “Circles” – Vital to decentralized organizations, circles provide a nonhierarchical structure in which all are equal.
  2. “The Catalyst” – The catalyst gets the ball rolling for leaderless organizations and then passes control on to the members.
  3. “Ideology” – Members of decentralized entities share a burning passion about some central idea or philosophy.
  4. “The Pre-existing Network” – Most decentralized organizations exist because of “pre-existing platforms”.
  5. “The Champion” – The catalyst inspires decentralized organizations, but the champion builds them. Champions are more “salesmen than organizers”.

Catalysts play a vital role in starfish entities. Modern catalysts share these traits: “Genuine interest in others, loose connections, mapping, desire to help, passion, meet people where they are, emotional intelligence, trust, inspiration, tolerance for ambiguity, hands off approach, and receding.” Thanks to this idea of catalysts and as starfish organizations continue to prevail a new set of business rules has emerged. This is important to know as you look at your business model.

The “new rules of the game” are:

  • “Diseconomies of scale” – The small rule now. Before the larger companies sat at the top of the roost, but now the smaller, more flexible firms react to change faster – making them more successful in the long run.
  • “The network effect” – A network is very valuable. Thanks to the Internet you can have many networks for virtually nothing, gaining you credibility and value.
  • “The power of chaos” – A starfish organization encourages chaos, and fosters creativity. People have the opportunity to do as they please – often breeding brilliance.
  • “Knowledge at the edge” – Information is spread to all, and each individual voice is valued.
  • “Everyone wants to contribute” – Everyone has a voice.
  • “Beware the Hydra response” – Attack a starfish organization and face many heads, like the Hydra of Greek Mythology.
  • “Catalysts rule” – Catalysts inspire by example.
  • “The values are the organization” – The organization is its values. In a starfish organization the culture can’t be differentiated from the function.
  • “Measure, monitor and manage” – Reports and statistics are less valuable than intelligent questions.
  • “Flatten or be flattened” – Go with the flow.

Capture the best of both worlds. Take the most valuable traits from both types of organizations to create a modern hybrid that can take anything on. Create the point of most return, and you’ll have traveled to where you want to go.