The starfish and the spider

Starfish and the spiderFor a highly acclaimed book, according to the number of accolades on the back cover, The Starfish and The Spider is surely repetitive, but makes for a quick read. In a nutshell, the author applies the analogy of starfish and spider anatomy to the corporate world. While spider has many legs growing from the center, cut off its head – and the whole organism falls dead. With starfish cutting off one of the legs won’t achieve any fatal scenarios – you will just get two starfish organisms, as the anatomy is completely decentralized. Apply that to the corporate world, and you have two kinds of companies – one where the head directs everything, and such organization, when made headless, turns into chaos. And a company where every employee is so autonomous, that removing the person on the top, as well as layers of management organization would damage the organizational body somewhat, but won’t be fatal.

Authors take a look at Kazaa, Skype, Alcoholics Anonymous, Craigslist, Wikipedia, eBay, Apache Indian tribes, and Toyota as examples of successful decentralized organizations. Successful in different respects – The eMule Project, covered in the book, doesn’t earn any revenues per se, but manages to sustain all sorts of attempts to exterminate it. Wikipedia is not a money-maker either, but undoubtedly successful as far as the quality of content is concerned. With the Toyota example, the authors point out GM’s Fremont, CA plant as an example of highly centralized, and unsuccessful, project management approach, and compare it to Toyota’s decentralized and highly autonomous approach, where bottom-up innovation is welcomed. The case of the auto plant was apparently covered in the movie Gung Ho, but haven’t seen the movie, I can’t really comment on that.

The authors fill some pages with interviews with Craig Newmark and Jimmy Wales. Valuable content otherwise, it doesn’t really add much to the book – we learn that Jimmy Wales doesn’t do any article editing himself anymore (so they’re even more decentralized than you might have thought), and that Craig Newmark is very user-centric and responds to customer support e-mails. The authors also make a passing remark on the cases when the centralized structure is preferred (U.S. Army, commercial airline, etc.), but don’t really expand on this point, so you’re sold on the idea that decentralized management is applicable to every single company out there.

Sometimes the authors seem to confuse decentralization with just employee empowerment. They quote Jack Welch and current GE as an excellent example of decentralization, while in reality it looks like the corporate structure is still pretty rigid – employees just got motivated to make more decisions themselves, instead of relying on management to tell them what to do.

Overall, the book exposes a good idea, but seems to be hung up on the idea of making the right number of pages to publish a book. Reading this review provides a pretty good overview on what to expect in nine chapters.