According to anthropologist Robin Dunbar, there is a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom we can maintain stable social relationships, which he calls “Dunbar’s number” or “Dunbar’s limit.” This limit is around 150 people.
When organizations grow rapidly and reach about 150 people, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the informal communication and social cohesion that enabled success. As fast-growing organizations approach Dumbar’s number, they either become forever mediocre or they adapt and become excellent at scaling (in addition to being excellent at delivering customer value). The key differentiator is making the routine, routine by implementing cadence-based mechanisms, which I call Routines.
Routines are cadence-based Mechanisms that help organizations complete routine tasks and stay focused on their goals and objectives. By implementing Routines organizations improve communication and reduce confusion, creating a more productive and less stressful work environment. Are people in your organization complaining about everything always being urgent? Routines help by ensuring the important things are already on the calendar.
A symptom of an organization struggling with Dunbar’s number is constant whining about “I’m being randomized by such-and-such exec.” In Don’t Make Your Team Say No To You I shared how I was an exec-randomizer myself. I conquered this by implementing Routines that provided “relief-valves” for my crazy ideas; I knew, and the team knew, that there was a time and place for big-ideas and thinking. We should save them up until that time, ensuring everyone else could stay on plan.
For example, as the CTO of SnapOne, I helped the organization scale by driving the adoption of mechanisms that included regularly scheduled events such as meetings, reviews, and publications. One of these mechanisms was “Think Big Month,” which happened in May. This Routine served as a catalyst for the 3-year plan (3YP), which was developed in June/July. The operational plan (OP) for the following year was then worked on in November/December and codified in January. Each of these individual Routines, as well as how they were connected, helped ensure that the organization was always moving towards a clear set of goals and objectives. Because they always happened at the same time each year, they were never a surprise, and let people stay focused on the current plan, knowing future planning was going to happen real soon now.
Another Routine I implemented was the “Programs Review”. In my vernacular, a “Program” is a small organization (no more than about 42 peeps) that delivers something customers will always care about (e.g. Lighting or In-Space Propulsion). Every 2 weeks my staff and I hosted a “Program Review”. We had 9-12 programs, so each program cycled through every 6-8 weeks. This helped ensure that progress was being made on each program and that everyone was working towards the same goals.
Board meetings were another important Routine (that already existed); they were held quarterly and alternated between Salt Lake City and Charlotte. This was a good mechanism for getting leaders that didn’t normally work in person together in a routine way, which helped build cohesion and alignment across a distributed organization.
Implementing these mechanisms helped make the routine, routine, by creating a predictable and reliable framework for getting things done. This helped ensure that deadlines were met and that everyone was working towards the same goals. It also improved communication and reduced confusion, creating a more productive and less stressful work environment.
A business cadence built around Routines can be a powerful tool for organizations that are looking to scale beyond Dunbar’s number. By implementing regularly scheduled events and other mechanisms, organizations can create a structured plan for completing routine tasks, allocate resources more effectively, and move towards a clear set of goals and objectives.
Hi Charlie, long time, no see….
I have a feeling that you totally misunderstand the Dunbar number.
Of course, a new coming exec creating havoc in business is a fairly common thing. It’s just not related to the Dunbar number at all.
I have two examples. Full reply is here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1tsxPzF01S55xukZyy1CNGqKsuVujDyVL3wpkt9EeEPE/edit?usp=sharing (LI does not allow long replies).
Example #1. Well above Dunbar number.
Google hiring a new exec from PayPal to lead its Shopping organization. Huge reorgs, and thousands of people shuffled, serious business distraction. The “new” exec leaving the company with a golden parachute about a year ago to Pinterest.
Example #2. Well below Dunbar number.
I led a team of about 12 people. My manager needed to put someone between me and him to become a “director”. He hired a lady from our Indian office who destroyed anything of value in the team. I left the team. For two years the destruction continued. The destroyer got into another positions at a director level. About a month ago the whole team was laid off.
As you see, Dunbar number is not relevant here. That’s not what you are fighting with when a new manager (exec) is coming aboard.
Still the problem you fight is 100% legit. Good luck with it. And see my upcoming LinkedIn post of corporate parasites.
Great to hear from you Eldar!
I have a feeling you either didn’t read my post or are commenting on a different post. Nothing about my post has anything to do with new execs joining a team. It is about startups scaling from about 70-80 people to above 150.
I’m not alone in using Dumbar’s number as a proxy for how behaviors that worked when a growing startup was small don’t work when a growing startup gets big. For example see: https://qz.com/846530/something-weird-happens-to-companies-when-they-hit-150-people