The Essential Rules for Human Organization - Magic Numbers
There seem to be a set of what are called "magic numbers" of human social combinations. We think that they are related to our hunter gatherer past. You see them most clearly in the military. They pose big challenges for any organization such as a business which grows through the thresholds as they drive a different dynamic
1. 5-8 the core group of intimacy,. In the Roman army the number was 8. They shared a tent. This seems to be the ideal meeting number for rich ideas without too much inertia. Many sports teams are built around this number. It is likely the ideal hunting number of men - you see this on the basketball court - it is the number where you don't have to think about the others - you just know that they are there. In a business this would be the size where little normal action will be required to connect everyone and no work on the culture is needed either as this size always connects by design. This can be quite democratic
2. 25-35 The platoon. We think that this number can be extended to 50. This was likely the size of most Hunter gatherer tribes and represents the core group for work. This is still an intimate group but a hierarchy will have normed. There will have to be a leader - if not appointed one will emerge. Not a lot of cultural work needed to link everyone but a good connecting tool will be needed to link everyone. The fire was the old tool. Blogging seems like a good modern version of the fire where learning was given and received in the norm of stories.
3. 450-650. The battalion. This is a very tricky number. It represents the most people that one leader can know and the largest group that can self police. It was likely the size of a "nation" or confederation by blood of tribes. It has to be sub organized into the tribal groups and it has to have a leader. This group is still small enough to "trust" the rest and has the social capital to be collaborative. It is large enough to be quite diverse and can pernorm very complex work. With all those connectins a channel of connection is important. In the tribal past these groups would have met infrequently and had some sporting, religious or major hunting event to knit the group. In the evenings there would have been extended partying. This is the gene pool bank for successful tribes - you would have married your sister off to a cousin tribe and vice versa so not only would the memes be linked but also the genes.
The problem seems to arise when we violate these building blocks. A school with 1,000 kids and no normal tribal subdivisions will have bullying and discipline problems. Factories with 900 on the shift will have problems. Work teams of less than 5 will not have the richness to outpernorm teams of 8. Work teams of 12 are too big to function as an intimate group and build friction in a non linear fashion. Intersting that all armies hold true to these numbers and that so few few businesses even consider them.
I am sure that we will find that these numbers will play out in communities of practice. I would be interested to consider the blog-rolls. What is the number for those who closely keep in touch? I bet it is in the 8 person size. I bet most blog-rolls do not practically extend beyond 30
Magic Genetic Numbers
Published: December 13, 2004, 11:20 pm