Follow the Leader, or Think Like a Starfish?

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Monday, January 1, 2007

"The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations" describes the oft-overlooked reason Skype, Craigslist and al-Qaeda have prospered under assault from the seemingly more powerful.

The book's authors, high-tech entrepreneurs Rod A. Beckstrom and Ori Brafman, say these groups' decentralized structure makes them more nimble, whether in the marketplace or on the battlefield. User-driven, they distribute decision making among all members, who do not need word from headquarters to function. If a portion of the organization is defeated, the whole survives and recovers, as a starfish regrows an arm if it is severed.

More commonplace in industry and government are "spider" organizations: They function within a rigid, centralized structure, with the leader calling the shots. One good blow to the head cripples or kills a spider.

The spiders are the establishment: the telephone companies undercut by Skype's free Internet calling; newspaper classified sections threatened by the free, local classified listings on Craigslist; and the U.S. government apparatus struggling with al-Qaeda.

The trick to beating a starfish, the authors say, is to become -- or at least think -- like one. We spoke with Beckstrom about how the book's theories might be used to create a more efficient government, and a better strategy in Iraq.

-- Elizabeth Williamson

Q You say that when our founding fathers sculpted our Constitution, they put the government in the "sweet spot," between centralized and decentralized. Are we still there?

AWe've drifted strongly back toward centralization over time as a country, and of course we wobble back and forth a little bit. One of the biggest examples was after 9/11, when we took all the different police forces and intelligence forces and put them all under Homeland Security. That was a major centralization move, and typical: When a fairly centralized player gets attacked by a decentralized force, like al-Qaeda, the first reaction is to centralize further, and that's usually a strategic mistake.

So how do we get back into the sweet spot?


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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