Are you the founder of a business that’s scaling? Are you finding it increasingly difficult to inspire and motivate your growing team? Are you noticing that the informality and personal relationships that made your start-up so efficient are becoming less effective as you scale? 

It doesn’t matter how great you are as a leader or how hard you work, there comes a point where you can’t get the best out of your people unless you take a more systemic approach…

If your business has grown to 100 people you might be noticing the people dynamics changing. When we speak to founders they say things like: “So much of my day seems to be taken up with resolving inter-personal issues and trying to get people to apply a bit of common sense and work together. It never used to be like this!”. 

The bad news is, if you do nothing about it, these sorts of problems get worse the more people you add to your business. Rather than delivering more and better work, more people means more people problems. 

When you started out, you were probably really excited about bringing people into your company and growing the team. Unless you’ve found an effective way of working together at scale, there are probably times now when you reminisce 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.

If this sounds familiar, don’t worry! It’s a common problem in founder led businesses that are trying to scale and we know a way to fix it.

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. When you’re small it’s better to use personal influence to get stuff done. You don’t want to slow a small business down unnecessarily by introducing structure and processes. 

However, now you’ve grown beyond 50+ people, you’ve 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 find it especially difficult to navigate your organisation and get up to speed.

The key thing to recognise is that the reason individuals in different teams aren’t talking to each other 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.

When you’re small it’s better to use personal influence to get stuff done. You don’t want to slow your business down by introducing unnecessary structure.

So what can you do to manage the increasing social complexity and keep scaling your business at pace?

If you want to grow your business past 100 – 150 people and to operate at pace, you need people to collaborate effectively. To do this you have to develop new aspects to your culture – you need a system to take the load. At The Pioneers we call this system your peopleOS

Successful companies have an effective and coherent peopleOS – a set of management practices and ways of working that help them to:

  • Attract, align and retain the talent they need to be successful
  • Enable people to work effectively so that they can deliver on what’s been promised to customers and shareholders
  • Explore opportunities to improve and grow

Building out your peopleOS doesn’t mean you have to become a boring 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

If you get your peopleOS right, you’ll have a culture that flows… where it’s easy for people to work at their best; where teams become more than the sum of their individual talents; and where you’re able to fulfil your growth ambitions.

If you think you need to start deliberately engineering your peopleOS, start by taking our diagnostic survey. It will help you get a measure on where your business is now: what parts of your peopleOS you should be prioritising; what’s already sorted; and what can you afford to ignore.