Updated: Jul 18
It is a well-known, yet poorly understood phenomenon. Small teams of approximately 7 individuals, easily out-perform larger teams or groups by 200 to 300 percent. Small teams are more motivated, create more inspiring and innovative ideas, they are better at implementing their plans and as a result they are more appreciated by their environment. However, as such teams grow larger, their performance rapidly degrades. Even if they are built-up from the same individuals that were highly successful in a small team. Question is, what causes this phenomenon and how can we make it suitable for large organisations?
What is it with small teams?
The phenomenon of small teams has been researched and documented extensively by many different scholars and in many different content and context situations. Remarkably the results were as numerous as were the conclusions. Psychologist George Miller called it “The magic of 7 ±2”. He concluded that the size of small teams corresponds with the most effective range of our short-term memory. Our brains seem to work best within the range of seven plus or minus two. At less than seven, the team will often break up into pairs or trios. At more than seven, it will lead to a stable septet of seven. He believed that anything larger than 9, soon succumbs to quarrels and bureaucracy. The British anthropologist Robin Dunbar believed small teams were more successful because they form clusters of intimacy. He discovered the existence of cliques of five to nine people, sympathy groups of 12 to 15 people and group associations with 30 to 50 members. This led to the Dunbar number sequence with a maximum size for a successful team of 150 and 1500 for a successful organisation. To date, no one has been able to provide an explanation for this number sequence. But even Bill Hewlett and David Packard (HP) used them. In the early 1980s, they decided to split up the company in 40 divisions, all of which had a maximum of about 1,500 employees. And many other companies like Sony, IBM and Phillips, soon copied this model. Evidently, intuitively this all makes sense. Because once an organisation grows beyond 1500 individuals it is no longer a ‘big family’ where dedicated people work towards a common goal, but rather an anonymous organisation where employees mainly care about their fringe benefits and career planning. Yet, a definitive testable explanation was never discovered.
Nature already has the answer (... of course!).
I often wonder about our inability to see what is so painfully clear and right in our face. Because whatever deep philosophic or logic reasoning we are capable of, we mostly fail to see that Nature already knows the answer to the phenomenon of small teams. Actually, it is part of its fundamental laws. Because, think about this: tree leaves, flower petals, coral polyps, tree branches, the musical scale and even our toes and fingers are all arranged in groups of approximately 7 plus/minus 2. And when we look at natural organisation it becomes even more clear. In nature, animals intuitively form groups that follow the Dunbar number sequence. Hunting packs are rarely larger then 9 animals. Family groups mostly range between 30 and 50 individuals. Such groups often associate with other groups to 150. But Nature’s most successful organisation principles can be found in Swarms
SWARMS are based on flexible cell structures of 7 ±2 individuals. These cells can congregate to enormous organisations, yet all individuals remain autonomous. The cells constantly shift position in the Swarm and exchange members and information. This creates a highly connected organisation that pursues a common goal. A Swarm resonates and creates flow, it is Holographic. In essence, Swarms follow the Dunbar number sequence. They utilize all the principles of small teams while still creating organisations that range in the hundred thousand individuals. These individuals participate because they experience value in the collective and therefor are intrinsically motivated to form clusters of intimacy.
What we can learn from Nature
Swarms have long since solved the question of combining the success of small teams with the resilience and power of large organisations. It is these properties that make them highly innovative, connective and adaptive and enables them to thrive in a constantly changing environment. It is our challenge to learn from Nature and incorporate the properties of Swarm organisation in our human systems.
Do you want to improve the motivation, engagement and adaptive capacity of your organisation? Then look into the intriguing possibilities of SWARM Organisation. SWARM Organisations are more enjoyable, sustainable and profitable, for people and planet.
If you like to know how we do this, just give us a call
Evert Bleijenberg MBA
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