In 2006, two Stanford MBAs, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, wrote The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations. The book examines how recently there has been a trend to limit centralization in organizations and the change that this is bringing about. The title was developed because both creatures have similar shapes, but react differently to change. If a spider’s head is removed, it dies. If a starfish’s head is taken off, it grows another to replace it. Their basic premise is that more autonomous groups have a better chance at survival than do those which we’re more familiar with that have a traditional hierarchy.
They discuss a number of organizations that have employed the Starfish Principle. These groups include the internet, eBay, Napster, Wikipedia, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Apache Indians. Each of these share a set of common characteristics. In each, there are small units which can organize and grow independently of any central direction. This makes it difficult for opponents to defeat them, or exert control over them. They each have mechanisms and advocates who activate the group. Rather than a traditional hierarchy, they are formed around a circular philosophy of coordination. They each depend on a common ideology as a basis for remaining together.
Tea Party activists, as seen in a report in Politico, have used this book for its application to the group. When individuals, either GOP regulars or would-be leaders, try to place themselves in charge of the movement, the Tea Party has autonomously acted to reduce their impact. Among other Tea Party groups, FreedomWorks requires new employees to read the book to understand the direction of the movement.
Tea Party activists have tended to reject organizations such as the National Tea Party Federation, which attempted to impose itself as a steering committee for the movement. Also, when individuals presume that they are the de facto leaders, they find their power attempts rejected.
A problem that the Tea Party may encounter, according to Brafman are the issues of power and money. When you try to elect individuals, those individuals are likely to exert more power over the group than do grass-roots individuals. Likewise, if the Tea Party decides it needs money to expand, then those who contribute the most are apt to achieve power within the group. We see, in the two existent parties, that this holds true for each of them. Political elites try to centralize power, and those who provide campaign funds tend to find access to their positions, while the rest of us are left without a voice.
Probably the last book that has had such an impact upon politics and public policy is ‘The Tipping Point’, which developed the way in which organizations can readily affect external change.