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The unpopularity of top-down management is old news by now. Yet how, exactly, does one create an openly collaborative organization? One that’s based on the power of peer relationships? One that can thrive?

The best Peer2Peer groups are efficient, adaptive and resilient resource-maximizers. That’s why they include “good” and “bad” groups. They are exceedingly good at outmaneuvering their opposition in this flattening world. They include Toyota, Wikipedia, AA, craigslist, Skype – and al Queda.

Yet “flattened” leadership is not a modern notion, notes Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom who believe it enabled the Apaches to evade a much larger Spanish army for 200 years. In their book, The Starfish and the Spider they offer six signs of a starfish, a decentralized group:

1. When attacked, it is more likely to become even more open and decentralized.
2. One can mistake a starfish for a spider.
3. A ‘starfish-style” open system doesn’t have central intelligence, rather intelligence spreads throughout the system.
4. Open systems can easily mutate.
5. A decentralized organization sneaks up on you.
6. As industries become decentralized, overall profits decrease.

To confirm that an organization is a starfish, observe:

1. Is there a person in charge?
2. Are there headquarters?
3. If you thump it on the head, will it die?
4. Is there a clear division of roles?
5. If you take out a unit, is the organization harmed?
6. Is power and knowledge concentrated or distributed?
7. Is the organization flexible or rigid?
8. Can you count the number of employees or participants?
9. Are working groups funded by the organization, or are they self-funding?
10. Do working groups in it communicate directly or through higher-ups?

In the authors’ rather ghoulish metaphor, starfish (representing headless, decentralized groups) can survive when legs are ripped off while spiders can’t. As H. Soza notes, “Many of our problems today are the result of leaders who try to defeat “starfish” entities using “spider” techniques (e.g. shock and awe, surges, lawsuits, hostile takeovers, etc.) We waste energy, treasure and lives because we have been too lazy to truly understand what we are fighting, or the actual opportunity that stands before us.” Some think the book over-simplifies.

While many of the authors’ examples involve large groups, the same principles hold true for any start-up, cell group centered or one-time project team. “We” can succeed when recruited or by recruiting individuals with much less money or contacts today. Yet we need the right mix of talents, an agreed-upon goal and rules of engagement – and a capacity to work with extremely diverse people, it seems.Ori Brafman

In this podcast Brafman describes how you can succeed with a starfish group.

moving from me to we


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