Too big to groom

brush for pets

Much has been written about the optimal size for communities and business organizations.

As we discussed a few months ago, primatologist Robin Dunbar says any group becomes inefficient when it exceeds approximately 150 members. Coincidentally, many businesses—like W.L. Gore and Brazil’s Semco—have discovered on their own that when one of their organizations exceeds that size it loses its sense of community and needs to be split into smaller units. (Dunbar has also found that three to five is the optimal number for intimate friends, which—as I’ve pointed out before—happens to fit the size of most rock bands and small business teams.)

But until this week I had missed the evolutionary link behind Dunbar’s numbers. In his anthropological research he discovered that when communities of primates began to exceed 150, it weakened their social bonding based on their ability to groom each other’s fur!

Suddenly some things I've observed as a management consultant make sense. For instance, whenever I worked with mining and manufacturing sites that exceeded 150 workers I was always mystified by the fact that employees seemed totally uninterested in combing each other’s hair. Perhaps you’ve noticed this too.

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What if...

When I look at the history of the great rock bands I’m always struck by the random occurrences that happened early in their careers that enabled their later successes.

If Paul McCartney hadn’t met John Lennon at St. Peter’s Church in Liverpool or if the group’s booking agent, Alan Williams, hadn’t sent them to Hamburg (where they had to play six sets a night for months, turning them into a professional band) or if young record buyers hadn’t alerted music store owner Brian Epstein to the existence of the group (which he soon began to manage)—there would be no Beatles phenomenon.

Likewise, if Larry Mullen Jr. hadn’t posted a notice on the bulletin board at Dublin’s Mount Temple School seeking musicians for a new band or if Paul McGuinness hadn’t been introduced to the group (which he was later invited to manage) or if Bono, Edge, and Larry had abandoned the band to pursue a more spiritual path (as they almost did)—there would be no U2 phenomenon. MANY serendipitous incidents have to fall into place for bands like these to make their mark.

And so it goes for any winning business. If Steve Jobs hadn’t met future Apple partner Steve Wozniak at Homestead High School or hadn’t visited Zerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (where he was inspired by their graphical interface display) or wasn’t kicked off another Apple project, freeing him up to lead the MacIntosh development team—there would be no Apple computers, tablets, or smartphones today.

The most overlooked aspect of business achievement may simply be...luck. Every success story I can think of is dominated by happenstance. But that doesn’t make for compelling narratives—and won’t sell business books.

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Business lessons from Walk Off The Earth

Economist Richard Florida, mentioned in a recent post, often talks up the connection between (1) the artistic creativity of musicians, writers, actors, etc., (2) the economic creativity of entrepreneurs, and (3) the technological creativity of engineers and scientists.

They are so interrelated, Florida contends, that artistic creativity in a community can attract and stimulate economic and technological creativity over time—as has happened in the San Francisco and San Jose metros, providing us Silicon Valley, the engine of the Creative Economy. By this logic, city planners can better stoke the economic fires by providing an inclusive, culturally diverse, artistic environment that’s attractive to young creative professionals—than by subsidizing sports arenas, casinos, convention centers, and shopping malls!

But Florida’s thesis led me to a different insight this week. The best musical acts—especially in today’s DIY indie world—must have all three of these creativity burners going at once. These artists have always had to be innovative, but now—to keep ahead of the pack—they have to be equally inventive in their promotional strategies and technological approaches.

My favorite example of this (and nearly everything else these days) is Walk Off The Earth, the ridiculously talented Toronto-based quintet that rode to internet fame on the basis of their quirky home-made video of Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know,” which garnered 58 million YouTube views in 6 weeks. Here’s a more recent home-made clip, of a Taylor Swift tune.

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“They’ve all gone to look for America”

[I've decided to reprise a post I did five years ago on this date.]

Today marks another anniversary of a life-changing event for me, though not a fun one.

On a hot Tuesday evening in the spring of 1968, my folk-rock band, The Morning, was in New York to open the show for comedian David Steinberg at The Bitter End in Greenwich Village. After the gig, in the early morning hours of June 5th, several of us drove up the Hudson River to spend the night at the West Nyack home of the Kastners, the accommodating parents of our guitarist, Mat.

Upon arrival I resumed my usual late-night ritual of ransacking the Kastner kitchen for anything edible. ("Starving artist" was more than a metaphor for me at the time.) I was busily engaged in a Heimlich maneuver on the refrigerator when the phone startled me around 3:30am. Within two minutes, Mat's dad, Joseph Kastner (who happened to be Life magazine's copy editor), appeared in the kitchen doorway in his pajamas to announce that Robert Kennedy had just been shot in a Los Angeles hotel. Minutes earlier, Kennedy had been proclaimed the winner of the all-important California primary election, giving him favored status to win the Democratic nomination for U.S. President that summer and setting up a likely campaign against Richard Nixon in the general election that fall. But within a day, Bobby Kennedy would die, of gunshot wounds to the head.

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