Startup founders everywhere lay in their beds dreaming of taking their company to stratospheric heights, gracing the cover of Fast Company (or Entrepreneur Magazine, or Inc.) and hiring dozens upon dozens of new employees to fuel their exponential growth. Everyone is aiming to be the next unicorn.
However, with growth comes complications. New departments must be formed, recruiting quality candidates becomes a major pain point, and assimilating new hires into company culture is a labor intensive task. Another interesting obstacle expanding companies encounter is when they pass 150 employees, or ‘Dunbar’s Number’.
Dunbar’s Number, named after Oxford–based evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, is the ‘cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships’. In other words, it is very difficult to preserve relationships beyond 150 people. Dunbar’s research showed that groups throughout human history have organized themselves around this number: from military units, to hunter/gather tribes, to modern Hutterite and Amish communities.
For companies this means that once an organization surpasses 150 employees, their relationships, culture, and overall connectivity can quickly fracture. So what can organizations do to alleviate this problem?
Hire less people
An obvious answer is to hire fewer employees. If you want to maintain strong bonds in your company, you should only hire when absolutely necessary. Yet, as intuitive as this sounds many founders are quick to make vanity hires. Do you really need that personal assistant? In–house legal team? Group of summer interns? Possibly, but maybe you are hiring too liberally and too quickly.
Growing companies can often get bloated and destroy their work efficiency in the process. In 2001, Netflix was forced to fire one–third of their workforce. Those who were not absolutely vital to the company's short term operations were let go. It was a difficult time for the company as many long term employees were fired. However, shortly after that downsizing, the Netflix team started working more productively. By cutting some of the fat, Netflix built a leaner, more capable work engine with an improved sense of team.
Creating Teams Within Teams
Another way to combat the effects of Dunbar’s number is to create teams within teams through the division of space. Famously, W.L. Gore & Associates, creators of products such as Gore–Tex, built additional office spaces when a branch exceeded 150. Creating these defined ecosystems allowed individual buildings to keep their sense of association. A sense of solidarity rises when recognizable faces are working as a unit toward similar objectives. Unfortunately, not every organization has the capital (or the desire) to create new office spaces for every wave of new hires. This brings us to our third solution.
When you must grow, and breaking your team up into sub teams with different offices is not an option, maintaining transparency will help mitigate the problems that arise after you pass Dunbar’s number. Having regular communications and soft touch points will build a necessary sense of trust and camaraderie within larger organization. Since Dunbar's Number suggest we can't hold personal relationship in our head after 150 people, we need a technological solution to keep transparency. Even if a CEO cannot know everyone on his or her team by name, they should be able to quickly and easily connect with anyone in their organization. By using technology to ease transparency and communication when your team exceeds Dunbar's Number, you can maintain your culture and connectivity, even after your team is no longer small.
Growth is great. If your team has the ability to grow intelligently, that’s a fantastic sign for your company’s future – and the three methods of hiring smartly, dividing your team space and maintaining transparency are good options for maintaining culture during growth phases. If you plant the seeds to keep your team connected and “small”, even during growth, your company and workplace culture will reap rewards for years to come.