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Originally published on Monday, December 11, 2006 in The Miami Herald

History illuminates decentralization
Leaderless groups have clear advantages over top-down organizations, according to a new book that cites examples in history -- and biology

The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations. Ori Brafman, Rod Beckstrom. Portfolio. 240 pages.

This latest entry in the growing pile of tomes discussing the new, open, participatory style of business has a few things in common with last week's book by Patricia Seybold. But the biggest area of differentiation is Brafman and Beckstrom's presentation of vivid historical examples of organizations that are similar to the starfish of the title.

The starfish, which is not really a fish, of course, can regenerate or even replicate itself when it loses a limb -- or several. It's decentralized. A spider, on the other hand, may safely shed several of its limbs, but if it loses its head, it's dead. Both organisms provide suitable metaphors for different types of organizations.

A powerful illustration of an historically significant decentralized ''group'' is provided by the Apaches, who had no leaders and many followers (who actually led by example). These Native Americans were able to withstand attacks by Spanish forces in the late 17th century because of their lack of a centralized governing unit. The opposing force was unable to defeat them when they were everywhere and nowhere with no principal leader. A recent example of a ''non-group group'' includes the file-sharing networks that have decimated the incumbent music distribution business. The reptile brains running record companies keep trying to put them out of business (or sue their users, their former customers) instead of figuring out how to monetize new technology in an intelligent and sustainable way.

More ominous is an amorphous entity like al Qaeda (literally ``the base''), which is spread out all over the world and actually lacks a base. We focus our attention (if not our efforts) on its nominal leader, Osama Bin Laden, but even if we eventually capture him, it's likely that disparate elements spread all over the world will live on to carry out its horrific mission.

But such entities become vulnerable when they interact with other, more centralized organizations. The Apaches, for example, were defeated when the U.S. Army gave them horses. The ownership of property created hierarchies based on property and ownership and ties to specific geographies, which became their downfall. And al Qaeda's cracks and weaknesses emerge in its relationships with banks, schools and other top-down institutions, though they seem to absorb and adapt with frightening alacrity, which is another hallmark of starfish organizations, according to the authors.

History lessons have more value if we, too, can learn and apply them to present and future conditions. That part is a bit tricky, but despite recent consolidation among many domestic and international industries, new players have emerged and grown rather quickly by harnessing the energy of decentralized customers who unite and divide again and again.

Businesses that can learn how to play in this new, less predictable field may also be able to figure out how to prosper by doing so. It's not always obvious and instead frequently ambiguous, but Brafman and Beckstrom are engaging, thoughtful and imaginative guides, and they provide a solid context and much to think about for the next wave of entrepreneurs — and current ones who don't want to be left behind.

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