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  • Writer's pictureEvert

The 50 unit threshold: about humans’ organising discrepancy with nature

Those familiar with my background, know that the SWARM Organisation model was based on my personal real-life observations of natural swarm behaviour. And one of the first big enigma’s I had to solve was why animals use both hierarchal and swarm organisation principles. What was the determining factor that made them choose for one or the other? Was it tied to a certain organism, group or species? Was it tied to habitat, food source or means of reproduction? Or was the choice purely random? What I concluded was that it was all about the size of the collective.

The 50 unit threshold.

We all know about a pack of wolves, a pride of lions or an elephant herd. All are hierarchal animal groups, often families, that are led by a single alpha male or female and they are rarely bigger than 50 individuals. Such collectives appear to function perfectly and don’t show any of the properties we see in swarms. But why? The answer is ridiculously simple. It’s about span of control. 50 individuals is just around the maximum span of control that a single leader can have using simple control mechanics. If the group gets any bigger, the alpha would require managers to delegate control. And that requires complex planning and language, something that animals just can’t do. So, when a hierarchical group starts to grow beyond this number it simply splits up. And any animal collective that wants to grow bigger, will have to use different principles, like that of the swarm. Yet this seems to be the total opposite of what we humans tend to do.

Anyone that ever had the pleasure to work in a start-up company will have experienced the amazing energy and performance of such ventures. Often there are no fixed functions or roles. People pick-up on any requirement of the collective. They handle issues autonomously, switch roles when required and communicated freely and frequently. There is little hierarchy and a very strong commonality and shared purpose. Basically, they behave as a swarm! However, as the venture grows bigger, humans start to build complex, rule based hierarchical organisations that require many managers to safeguard the process. Remarkably, as human organisations grow bigger, they become more and more hierarchical. It seems we humans have totally forgotten about the basic principles of nature.

Human organisations are out of sync with nature

Are we ready to address the discrepancy? Nature in the form of swarms, shows us the solution. In a rapidly changing environment, extensive hierarchy and control are counterproductive for adaptation. Moreover, the practise is hugely detrimental to innovation, motivation and overall wellbeing of it’s participants. Clearly, we have to reverse the way we utilize the organisation principles that we can see all around us. Hierarchy is not bad at all, but we should use it in proper setting for organisations that are no bigger then 50 individuals. Once an organisation grows beyond 50, abandon hierarchy and start using the swarm principles.

Evert Bleijenberg MBA

SWARM Organisation

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