When I first read The Starfish and the Spider, I was immediately captivated: the model of “decentralized organizations” that authors Brafman and Beckstrom described was so like the culture of a network marketing organization that it was almost eerie.

The book defines two essential types of organizations: centralized structures, with their clear hierarchies and chains of command, and decentralized or “open” structures, which operate according to a completely different and in many ways opposite set of rules. In their metaphor, cut off a spider’s head and it dies. But a starfish has no “head”—cut off one leg, and not only does it continue to thrive, but the severed leg grows itself a new starfish! (See our review last issue).

Starfish and its two Stanford-trained wunderkind authors have burst on the national scene as an influential force, in every sector from the highest echelons of military and government, to big business, to academia. (A glance at their speaking schedule for just the past few months is like sneaking a peek into Jimmy Carter’s Blackberry.) And it’s not hard to see why: their discovery of what they call “the new physics of human organization” may prove to be one of the defining paradigms of the twenty-first century.

As we prepared for this issue, Ori and Rod graciously agreed to find an overlapping half-hour in both their schedules where the three of us could talk about their work and the reception it’s had in the world so far. — J.D.M.

How did you first get involved in this starfish concept?

Ori: Right after 9/11 happened, we both realized that we wanted to do something to help the world. There were two things we understood: businesses and social networks—so we started a network of CEOs working for peace and economic development.

How was this network organized?
Ori: In circles, each composed of eight to twelve individuals. Each circle would meet completely in private—we had a zero press policy and didn’t even have a web site. We had Israelis, Palestinians, Americans, all kinds of people from differentareas where there was conflict or a strong need for a cultural dialogue.

The groups would meet for a couple of days, starting out by talking about their own life stories. Because they were CEOs, they would quickly move to brainstorming about action they could take for the cause.

At first people thought we were nuts. They’d ask, “Who’s in charge?” And we’d say, “There’s no one in charge.”

“Well, what’s your strategy?” they asked, and we replied, “The strategy is just to start the network.”

“But how do you monitor these people’s behaviors?” They just couldn’t get that it was all about the network, about letting these circles flourish.

And I gather they never did show up in the public eye?

Ori: A lot of the circles’ work has stayed completely under the radar, but a few of them went public with some of the work they did. The India/Pakistan group was really instrumental in opening up the borders between two countries. At that point, people came back to us and said, “Wait a second! What just happened here?! How did you guys do this?!” And we said, “You haven’t been listening! It’s all about the network, about the richness of circles.”

People kept asking why this network model was so successful, and we found it difficult to explain that it can actually be beneficial to have no hierarchy—that a completely open structure can be a very effective and powerful strategy. It’s a completely different kind of thinking.

We finally came up with a good metaphor to explain it: Alcoholics Anonymous.

Is there really anyone in charge at an Alcoholics Anonymous circle? No. Yet despite its lack of hierarchy, AA is the most effective way of combating alcoholism that there is.

Then people said, “Okay, but give us some business examples.” So we began looking at craigs-list, and then Wikipedia and eBay …and as we found more and more examples, people started telling us we needed to write a book—which was the last thing we ever expected to do.

Yet the book really struck a chord with a huge diversity of groups.

Ori: It really has. In just the last few years all sorts of new starfish organizations have suddenly been coming into play.

Why so? Why now?

Ori: I would argue that it has a lot to do with the Internet. The Internet has been around for decades as a technology, but as a social phenomenon it’s only about twelve years old, and we’re just now starting to feel its real social impact. And it has a tremendous capacity to seed starfish organizations.

What has the response been like?

Rod: It’s been amazing how much resonance the book seems to have with people across so many completely disparate industries and sectors.

For example, when we were working on the book, Ori and I used to say, “The Catholic Church is one of the great spiders in the world.” Yet just last night, I got an email from a senior father in a church saying, “I love your book, it’s amazing—and I’m wondering, how do we best apply these principles to what we do here in the church, given our history of being a large, centralized institution?”

Ori: I spoke a few days ago with a group representing a brand new movement called house churches. These are churches of fifteen people each—in fact, their model is, once you exceed fifteen, you start a new church. And there are twenty million members in America, and four or five times that number worldwide.

The week before, we talked with someone who’s organizing a network of financial planners who get together in small circles to support each other. And before that, a group with the military. From special forces to top brass, people in the armed services are realizing that the way our traditional military organizations are structured just isn’t maximizing the spread of information.

Every week there’s a new group of people saying, “You’re exactly describing us!”

When we interviewed Thomas Power from Ecademy, he pointed out that the Internet is a female phenomenon, and that’s why it has revolutionized the traditionally male world of business.

Rod: I think that’s absolutely true. When men meet, they tend immediately to play games of dominance. Who’s the head dog, the wolf pack leader? There’s jostling and positioning and a leader emerges, and it’s the nature of most guys to want to be that leader.

When women get together, on the other hand, they try not to be the leader or center of attention and constantly seek to move it around so that someone else is in charge. With circles, you have the notion that everybody is at the same level, and there’s real power in that. I think there are definitely some powerful feminine concepts there.

What we’ve tapped into is a new physics of human organizations. It’s a quantum change, something like moving from a Newtonian model to a world of relativity, where all the traditional rules are broken. Our traditional rules about how you develop organizations, rules that seemed so solid, are all shattered when you look at a starfish organization.

And this is showing up everywhere—in the way cell phone networks are organized, in telephony with Skype, which is completely decentralized, with music exchange … it’s even happening with the new power grid systems.

How so?

Rod: Right now, our electrical systems are centralized—and they’re incredibly inefficient. They don’t have good load-balancing throughout the system, so a lot of electricity is lost.

The solution? Decentralized architecture—which is what they’re doing in emerging-market countries where they’re putting brand new wiring. They’re all moving towards a decentralized, digitally-controlled grid.

That’s fascinating!

Rod: It’s like an unstoppable force that’s showing up everywhere now. Everyone’s been seeing all this change in so many different areas; what Ori and I brought to it was to decipher all these patterns and find one simple underlying model that explains them all. We didn’t invent anything; we just discovered how to make explicit what was implicit, give it a clear framework and apply it to human arts.

This new model not only looks like a more efficient mode of operation, it also looks like a more human mode of operation.

Ori: Exactly. Because these decentralized systems are necessarily based on trust. The moment you lose trust within an organization, that’s when you need to have hierarchy.

Look at even a temporary starfish, like Burning Man [an annual free-form festival that takes place in the Nevada desert]. Forty thousand people show up in the middle of the desert and spontaneously do what they do. You want to build a hand-powered Ferris wheel? Go ahead. There’s no safety inspector, no person appointed to judge whether or not it’s appropriate in this area.

The moment that you remove the authoritarian feel, people step up to the plate and begin to self-police very beautifully. Burning Man, Wikipedia and craigslist are all very effective self-policing systems.

The more self-policing a system becomes, the more trusting it becomes. The more trust you place in people, the more trusting they become. There is something that feels very human about that—and while hierarchy tends to stifle that, a starfish system tends to bring it out.

I never actually mentioned this to either of you, but the theme of this issue is “creating a culture of trust”—so you’re right on theme!

Ori: Really! That’s amazing.

Rod: And that’s the tradeoff: centralization is about control, decentralization is about the cultivation and nurturing of trust.

In the book, you make a distinction between a traditional CEO and the “leader” in a starfish organization—what you call a “catalyst.” This seems especially relevant to network marketing, where we have no genuine authority structure or “boss.” What exactly is a catalyst?

Rod: The catalyst may or may not be the original architect of the system, but either way, the role of a catalyst is to get the network going and help set the values, mores, ideology and even protocol of the network.

The catalyst tends to be someone who genuinely believes in the power of other people. A catalyst has to believe that there’s ultimately more power in tapping into others than just doing it yourself. If they didn’t believe that, they would be a CEO rather than a catalyst.

Ori: Spider organizations tend to depend on control, but there’s also a lot of order to them. If you ask the FBI, “Who’s in charge of St. Louis?” they’ll tell you, very clearly: “They report to this person, who reports to that person.” And that carries a lot of benefits.

In a starfish organization, on the other hand, there’s a lot more ambiguity inherent to the system. If you were to ask someone from AA, “Who is in charge of AA San Francisco?” they’d probably laugh, because nobody’s “in charge.” Creating an open system where everyone can contribute is vastly different from creating an efficient system where everyone follows orders.

So a CEO is really good at instituting order and establishing hierarchy; a catalyst is much more effective dealing in the world of ambiguity.

We asked Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, “Jimmy, how many people have access to your server?” He said, “I don’t know.” I thought he was pulling my leg. “What do you mean, you don’t know? These are your servers!” And he said, “These are people that trust each other; when someone is trusted enough by enough people, then they give them the password to the server. How many are there? I have no idea.”

Every now and then the servers go down, and someone just goes in and fixes it. There’s no actual protocol about how that happens. Can you imagine the CEO of a large company saying, “Well, a bunch of people have keys to the building, but we don’t know how many or who they are…”

It’s so bizarre, it sounds like something in nature rather than a manmade organization.

Ori: Exactly!

You say the catalyst believes in the ability of the individual people—so is it that a CEO brings the message down, while the catalyst finds the message and brings it out?

Ori: Yes—and the moment a catalyst tries to institute some kind of order into the system or have people follow him, that’s the moment the starfish ceases to exist as a starfish.

If Craig Newark suddenly passed out a dictum saying, “You can only do X, Y and Z postings,” then people would say, “Okay—adios, craigslist!”

Yet the catalyst sets the tone, ideology and perhaps even protocol.

Ori: Yes, the catalyst instills norms and values—and trust is typically big on that list. Every time we sit down to talk with a catalyst, they always talk about how “We trust our people.”

We asked Craig, “Have you ever thought about putting banner ads on your site?” And he said, “My users have never asked me to put up banner ads, so why would I?”

It’s not about telling your users what to do—it’s about listening to them. It isn’t that a catalyst “sets policy” so much as he or she puts in place a set of norms.

Craig has a very strong norm around community. Wikipedia has a norm around objectivity. Every article on Wikipedia has to be objective: you can’t have a one-sided, biased article about something. Alcoholics Anonymous has a norm of helping: the only way to recover from alcoholism is by people helping each other.

The catalyst serves as the pillar that keeps those values strong within the organization.

One challenge in network marketing is that we cherish our freedom, yet we also depend on leaders to show us what to do and how to do it.

Ori: It can be quite difficult to make that shift and begin thinking like a starfish, rather than like a spider. So many of us want order, and order is important. “What do you mean?! I’m just supposed to sit here in a circle and figure it out?! Help!” [laughs]

So you have your twelve steps, there’s your list of protocols.

Ori: Exactly—the norms. All the twelve steps are norms: “We believe in a higher power… We believe that we need to come clean…” And look at the way it’s phrased: it’s all “We believe.”

Fascinating. So it’s not a set of rules, but a model of behavior.

Ori: That’s right. Burning Man has a huge norm, which is that it’s purely a gift economy. You can’t sell, you can’t barter, you can’t trade—you can only give out gifts.

And that’s a norm, not a rule. If you want to sell something at Burning Man, there are no cops to tell you that you can’t.

If you could look in the crystal ball and see business twenty-five years from now, what does it look like compared to what it’s looked like the last 25 years?

Rod: Massively decentralized. Overlapping, crossing networks. People being members of multiple networks, as opposed to what we now call “companies.” Much more freelancing and collaboration and networks of networks … a whole rejiggering of things to meet both the production needs of what consumers want and the social needs of how people want to live their lives.

Does that also look like a net increase of human trust on the planet?

Rod: I don’t know; I think trust is very fragile, and there’s a lot of potential for profound violence out there. What I think we’re actually going to see is a more bipolar world, with areas of great trust and great cohesion and other areas that are even darker than they have been, with even less trust and more violence and terror, like we’re seeing in Iraq right now.

I don’t think it will be monotonic in one direction—I think the world is going to get real. Decentralization brings reality back into the game. It makes it hard to hide the truth.

Ori: A few years ago, we were sitting in publisher meetings telling them about craigslist, eBay and Wikipedia and they said, “Wiki-what? What are you talking about?” Now it’s just three years later, and not only does everyone know what Wikipedia is, but many of these same businesses have now been significantly affected by it.

Like it or not, the starfish is a force to be reckoned with.

Ori: Absolutely. People say, “But no one’s making any money on this.” And I say, “That’s fine. No one’s making any money off of AA, but look at its effect on addiction! No one’s making money off of peer-to-peer music sharing, but look at the effect on the music industry!”

And look at all of the lives that have become more economically productive as a result of their participation. If you could actually measure the economic impact of AA, it would be breathtaking.

Ori: Exactly. A starfish is very difficult to measure using spider models. It’s a different creature. You need to ask different questions. Rather than “How much are they making?” you need to ask, “How healthy is the network? Is it vibrant? Are people sharing the values?” These are the kinds of questions that indicate whether a starfish is growing or not, not last year’s P&L.

That’s one of the core messages of the book: if you’re in business, you need to start reacting to this starfish system. You’re going to have to shift the way you’ve been doing business. If you haven’t been trusting and empowering your users, then someone else is going to come along and do what you do in a new way that will fundamentally affect your business.

This was the most fun and exciting part about researching and writing this book: it is all about completely shifting how we look at the world.