Crib notes

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This is a brief list of notes from "The Starfish And The Spider" for reference at the IIF class on Monday, March 2, 2009. The book presents a model to understand the differences between starfish (decentralized organizations) and spiders (centralized organizations).

Differentiating factors

Arena Starfish Spiders
How does information and resources move through the organization, and what does the relationship chart between participants look like? There is no organization chart; participants move in and out of circles, giving ideas/feedback/resources to each other and finding needed resources locally. The org chart looks like a pyramid; top-down hierarchies dominate. All resources are sent "up" to the "boss," who allocates the resources back down to groups who need it.
Who leads and makes decisions? Everyone. The key figures are catalysts, influential members who set an example - but nobody is obligated to follow them. There are formal titles, managers/bosses, and CEOs. You agree to obey the chain of command when you join.
Who or what are participants loyal to? An ideology; your service is not to an organization or a person, but around a shared mission or ideal. You are loyal to your superior officers and to the organization that they lead.


Catalysts, as described above, are the key figures in a decentralized organization. They tend to have (or develop) these qualities.

  • Genuine interest in others.
  • Numerous loose connections, rather than a small number of close connections.
  • Skill at social mapping.
  • Desire to help everyone they meet.
  • The ability to help people help themselves by listening and understanding, rather than giving advice ("Meet people where they are").
  • Emotional Intelligence.
  • Trust in others and in the decentralized network.
  • Inspiration (to others).
  • Tolerance for ambiguity.
  • A hands-off approach. Catalysts do not interfere with, or try to control the behavior of the contributing members of the decentralized organization.
  • Ability to let go. After building up a decentralized organization, catalysts move on, rather than trying to take control.

How to fight a starfish

When under attack, decentralized organizations get more decentralized, and centralized organizations get more centralized. As a result, tactics that work against a centralized organization don't necessarily work against decentralized ones. If you are attempting to combat a decentralized organization, there are three main strategies that you can use.

  • Since members of a decentralized movement are driven by a mission or ideal rather than by orders, you can change the environment so that the mission is no longer relevant or seen as good. For instance, one organization reduced gang violence in a slum neighborhood by creating programs and projects that increased the economic mobility of its residence, since much of the violence and crime was driven by economic need as well as anger and frustration against an environment that put them in that position.
  • Turn the decentralized organization into a centralized one. The easiest way to do this is to turn the circles of participation into hierarchical pyramids by giving the respected members of the community - the catalysts - a scarce resource to control and allocate. For instance, the U.S. government gave herds of prized cattle as a gift to select members of the Apache tribe; the tribe formed into a cattle-management-based hierarchy instead of the decentralized group they had been before, and then the U.S. government was able to manage just the cattle-owning leaders to control the entire tribe.
  • Become a decentralized organizaion yourself.