The Starfish and the Spider

I don’t normally do this, but my friend John Lilly featured a book on his blog that sounds extremely interesting. I’m going to pick up a copy myself, but I thought I’d let other people know about it here as well.

John’s post can be found here:
The Starfish and the Spider, by Ori Brafman & Rod Beckstrom

John is a good friend of mine, and also currently happens to be the COO of Mozilla, makers of the ever cool Firefox browser. This is his personal blog, but hopefully he won’t mind a few extra page views today.

John & I pursued similar programs at Stanford, separated by two years. We were both Coordinators for the famous CS 198 program, and we both pursued a Master’s degree in Computer Science, with a focus on Human-Computer Interaction under Terry Winograd.

Like John, I haven’t read a good book on human-computer interaction and/or design in quite some time. But this one sounds extremely interesting and relevant. A quote from John’s summary:

The premise of this book is that there are a couple of very distinct models for organizations: centralized (the spider) and wholly decentralized (the starfish). The authors (Stanford GSBers, but worth reading in spite of that…) use this analogy: cut off the head of a spider and the spider dies. Cut off an arm of a starfish, and you often end up with two starfish. Starts by exploring the Spanish conquests of the Incas & Aztecs (spider organizations) and comparing them to the United States’ mostly ineffectual campaign against the Apaches (a starfish organization). The Apaches were harder to fight against because decisions weren’t made by any one person, but were made on what the US would have perceived as the edges — by medicine men who were empowered by their community. The strange thing (for the US, at any rate) was that whenever they killed any of these important people, more would spring up in their place. I thought it was interesting that the authors point to the US giving the Apaches cattle as something that ultimately led to the disintegration of their coherent society. (The implication here is that the sedentary nature of livestock & farming necessitated the creation of societal structures which were more centralized and less flexible — spider-thinking, where there was only starfish-thinking previously.)

Understanding the right organizational structure to produce truly excellent software is one of the reasons I pursued graduate programs in Human-Computer Interaction and Business.  With the incredible amount of innovation and dynamicism on the web and in e-commerce today, it’s an incredibly relevant subject.

I think I’m going to have to pick up a copy.

One thought on “The Starfish and the Spider

  1. Hey, I was just searching for blogs relating to psychohistory, and yours was on top. I think that book sounds extremely interesting, but I doubt I’ll have time to read it. I’m backed up as it is.
    It would also be interesting to know how starfish-like or spider-like al-queada (spelling?) and similar organizations are and if anyone is trying to undermine them by giving them cattle (or something similar). I also wonder if Al-Queada will realize what is happening to them and find a way to counteract.

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