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Primal Wisdom Part 1: Size Matters (Organizationally Speaking)

Throughout time there have been two fundamental human needs: 1) to belong, and 2) to be unique. Belonging provides us with safety, with support, with a community that gives our lives structure, greater meaning, and direction regarding how to live and how to interpret the world. However, at a certain point in one’s life, it stops being simply ok to belong and we start also trying to find how our unique set of skills, talents, or perspective can provide value and solidify our place in our community as a “valued” member (and therefore indispensable). The conformity needed to “belong” is what makes us a part of the community and the uniqueness is what “guarantees” that the community will continue to need us and want us to belong.

Through most of human history, our most basic form of organizations - clans or tribes - typically fluctuated between a few dozen to a hundred or so individuals. In certain cases, several clans may have loosely joined to form “nations”, but most people related most closely with their immediate group of about 30-150.

There are some very practical reasons for this. The number has to be big enough that it provides safety (i.e. there are enough of us that we are substantial, we can weather fluctuations in the economy and market, and we can still function if we lose a few people. Safety and comfort are why we would want to belong. However the organization can’t be so big that an individual is lost within it and doesn’t understand their purpose or value to the organization and its mission.

However, there are more primal issues at play in discovering the optimal size of our organizations. Evolutionary psychologist, Robin Dunbar found that 150 is roughly the cognitive limit to the number of people one can maintain stable social relationships with (anywhere from 100-230). Our ability to really know our immediate community well – to the point where we are aware of subtle changes, disturbances, weaknesses, imbalances, etc. – is key to the survival and prosperity of a community or organization. If someone is not doing well, if they are unhappy, overworked, overly challenged, or disengaged, it is important that the broader community be aware of that. These subtle issues are the first signs that there may be some bigger problems at play – whether that be that adequate support is missing or that key individuals are incapable of effectively performing their work, or that the organization is not adequately responding to the evolving needs of its members or the broader environment. Any of these factors would eventually lead to the weakening or failure of the entire organization if it remains unaware or if the issues remain unaddressed. In a highly attuned and aware society, our ability to sense subtle disruptions in the health and contentment of others in our immediate community is a necessity to ensure the long-term sustainability and prosperity of the community so the size of our most basic level of organization should reflect that.

Another aspect of organizational size is that it needs to strike the optimal balance between specialization and integration. If and organization is too small, individuals may have to perform many different tasks and not really get to explore their personal interests. If an organization is too big, individuals may have such a specific task that they don’t really understand how they contribute to the bigger picture. The ideal situation for individuals in an organization is to find a way that they can realize their individual core purpose while simultaneously contributing to the organization’s core purpose. Facilitating that overlap requires that the organization itself have clarity around its core purpose and that each individual’s role in that organization allows for them to specialize in something that is a valued part of achieving the bigger mission. The key is that individuals feel that their involvement with the organization furthers their own personal growth AND that each person’s personal growth also fuels the organization’s mission.

For several years, I worked for a engineering firm and saw them grow from 250 people in two offices to 450 people across six offices. During that time, it was fascinating to observe that there is a key point - around 75 people - where below that number, communication and information sharing just happens naturally. However, as the organization got bigger, subgroups began to form and each developed their own subculture with unique practices, but those practices are not really shared beyond the subgroup. A similar insight was shared in Rex Miller’s recent book, Change your Space, Change your Culture, where he explores a number of fascinating insights into modern corporate environments. One story is that of W.L. Gore (makers of Goretex and many other great products) and how they have found that the ideal size for a business unit is 150. Their late co-founder, Bill Gore, offered in an interview: “We found again and again that things get clumsy at more than 150.” Whenever a division gets bigger than that, they split it. Basically, although clarity of purpose, clarity of structure, and clarity of process (especially related to effective information sharing and integration) are key to any successful organization. However, they become an absolute necessity for organizations reaching that critical point of 75-150 people and the natural process of division that will shortly follow.

If these phenomena are understood, then organizations can be very deliberate about it’s growth and work with our evolutionary wiring to get the most out of their individuals and the collective result of those individual efforts. Next week in Part 2 we’ll explore “rights of passage” that enable individuals to psychologically grow within a professional environment.

As with most ideas, they come from inspiration all around us. This topic was inspired by a conversation I had with a very insightful mentor of mine.

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