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.

This brings evolutionary meaning to terms like “grooming your successor.” But in too many large organizations people just aren’t getting groomed at all! No wonder we’re in a global economic slump. We’re growing too big—and too grungy.

Hopefully, BLFR readers, you can now make it a priority in your organization to pick the nits out of your fellow employee’s hair and fur. Then you can watch your company’s productivity skyrocket!

Of course you’ll want to make sure this is consistent with your company’s human resource policies.

For my earlier post on Dunbar’s magic numbers, check here.

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  1. Thanks, Gary, I meant to add that. In the right corporate environment grooming each other's facial hair is a terrific team-building exercise. Seems to work best for all-male teams.

  2. maybe that's why the us house of representatives is so dysfunctional - at 435 members. the senate is more manageable at 100 members.

  3. The US Senate is certainly run more efficiently than the House, though that's faint praise these days. The numbers probably have a lot to do with it. The way I see it, the House was designed to be less efficient. Maybe the fact that former House members rarely become US President unless they also serve in the Senate validates the fact that an organization of 435 members will have trouble "grooming" leaders.

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