I was talking to the founder of a rapidly growing business. She was complaining that so much of her day is currently taken up with resolving inter-personal issues and trying to get people to apply a bit of common sense and work together. 

Her real frustration at the moment is that the more people she adds to her business the more problems she seems to have.

When she started out, one of the things that excited her was bringing people into her company and growing the team. But now she’s at 75 people, there are times when she reminisces about the good old days when people just got on, when they worked together as a team and when it was a lot easier to get work done.

Does this sound familiar? Well don’t worry, this is a common problem in rapidly growing companies. 

Why 150 is the magic number…

Before we look at what you can do about it, let me quickly introduce you to a concept called Dunbar’s number (named after the the Anthropologist Robin Dunbar)…

Dunbar’s number is about 100 – 150. Dunbar’s view is that this is the maximum number of stable relationships that an individual can maintain.

Groups of less than 100 people can operate cohesively by using informal, reciprocal exchanges to regulate behaviour. People understand where they sit with each other and they can moderate their relationships so everyone gets along.

But once groups get bigger than 100 – 150, the human brain no longer has the capacity it needs to keep on top of ‘who owes who a favour’, ‘who should I ask for help’ and ‘who’s in with who’. To continue to function effectively the group needs to resort to an outside authority or some established rules. 

When you were small, the lack of structure, the informality and sense of equality meant you could get work done quickly. 

But if you’re moving beyond 50+ people, you’ve probably got a level of social complexity that means you’re no longer collaborating as effectively as you once did. It’s likely that new joiners are finding it especially difficult to navigate the organisation and get up to speed.

The key thing to recognise is that the reason Sally in Marketing isn’t talking to Jane in Sales isn’t because there’s a personality clash. If you changed the individuals, the problems would resurface, because these types of problems are symptoms of your culture. 

If you want to continue to grow your business and to operate at pace, you need people to collaborate effectively and to do this you have to develop new aspects to your culture.

This doesn’t mean you have to become a boring grown-up company, with policies and procedures that drive the life out of your business. But you are going to need to start experimenting with new ways of working to discover what works for you.