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The Starfish and the Spider

By Andrew Lovett-Barron
Published in Reading
June 14, 2021
1 min read

Working in organizations larger than 20 people is hard. Having worked with some giants like the Department of Defense (1.4mil) and Ikea (200k+) in the past, the most important first step is to start trying to figure out what kind of organization you’re actually working with.

The Starfish and the Spider is a great book for thinking critically about organizations and the people within them. It uses a few primary metaphors to explore common structures:

  • The Spider: eight legs and control from the head, it represents the common monolithic, hierarchical organizations we all love to hate. AT&T, Walmart, etc.
  • The Starfish: whose nerves and functions are spread around its body — so lost limbs can be regrown. It’s the common network org type. Wikipedia is the big example here.
  • Hybrids: Maybe some nightmarish spider-starfish thing that can’t be killed. I’m irrationally scared of spiders, so I’m not so stoked on this particular one, even if its makes the most sense and is broadly their recommendation. Ebay is an example in the book.

Beyond giving a helpful taxonomy of org structures, it also goes into different qualities of leaders with these organizations — specifically the catalyst who serves to kickstart and build starfish type and hybrid organizations with the right collaborators. There’s some helpful rules and tools that get dropped throughout, not to mention more than a few warnings.

I found this to be a pretty fascinating and helpful book for thinking about leadership and organizations, and in particular looking for places to intervene. I was actually recommended this book by an old boss right before joining the Dept of Defense, and it was wildly helpful for my time there. Give it a read.

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Andrew Lovett-Barron

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