Defy The Rule of 150: Business Growth Strategies from an Unlikely Source

By: Natalie Trudel

Author Malcolm Gladwell recently spoke at the 2012 SHRM Conference and Expo. I have been a big fan of his for years and his visit prompted me to dust off ‘The Tipping Point’ and give it a second read.

The part of the book that stands out the most in my mind is the section dealing with The Rule of 150 in a business context. (For those unfamiliar, The Rule of 150 was coined by British Anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, and is defined as the “suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships and thus numbers larger than this generally require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group”). The theory is that when companies grow to over 150 employees, cohesion between business units breaks down, hierarchy hinders communication, and company goals become diluted.  An example of this is Gore Associates, a high-tech company worth millions that operates under this rule by never allowing any one building to contain more than 150 people. The results so far suggest that because of this philosophy, Gore Associates is a well-oiled performance machine.

business growthBut what about the multitude of organizations who HAVE grown past, or aspire to grow beyond the 150 employee mark? It isn’t feasible for all companies to take a cue from Gore Associates and start sub-dividing into smaller units of 150. I do agree that things are much easier below that magic number but that isn’t to say that cohesion is an impossible feat after that point. There are plenty of organizations that have avoided chaos and successfully grown way past 150 – the question is how do larger companies do that successfully and how can larger organizations re-align to reap the benefits of a close-knit group?

To help tackle this question, I am going to suggest that companies everywhere that have grown or plan to grow past the 150 employee mark take a lesson or two from a very unexpected source – ANTS. That isn’t an acronym; I am actually referring to the insects. I think companies who follow in the tiny footsteps of our crawly friends stand to benefit – big time. Why? They are so tiny and seemingly irrelevant; some even bite – why would I ever suggest modeling business practices around them? It is because despite their relative size, this species can turn a colony of millions into one high-functioning and effective unit – a super-organism.

‘Super-organism’ is the scientific term used to describe a group of individuals that behaves like one autonomous being.  Instead of each little ant operating alone, they operate as cells fused within one larger being like individual synapses in a brain. This highly-organized structure has made ants one of nature’s greatest success stories. Alone or in small groups, ants could never pull off the tasks needed for survival, but as a colony they can literally move mountains. See the connection now? The trick to overcoming the rule of 150 is to get your ants in a row.

Ants have a few innate abilities that allow them to organize into such highly effective units. Ask yourself if your company has any mechanisms in place to enable the following characteristics of a super-organism.

Intrinsically Social: Ants have evolved into highly social beings where communal goals and success is of the upmost importance to each individual. They tackle issues as a group and are fully aware that their individual strength cowers in comparison to the strength of their unity. When social behavior is taken to this extreme, it becomes something much greater and much more powerful.

Constant Communication: Ants have taken communication to a whole other level. They have figured out how to use their social behavior and constant and rapid communication to maximize a way to bring in resources. This continuous exchange ensures every ant is fully aware of what’s going on and allows them to adjust direction constantly on-the-fly (that is why there are so many ants that show up at your picnic). The past 20 years have given way to monstrous advances in the technologies available to facilitate business communication and yet proper company communication and cross-departmental contact are still pressing issues in organizations larger than 150. The issue isn’t with the tools, it is with the processes. Until businesses can develop highly flexible and effective protocol to bolster communication from one corner of the company to the other –  they cannot hope to work as one and they will fail when they are forced to change course as the macro environment dictates.

Total Cooperation and Understanding of Goals: Ants are successful at accomplishing tasks because they work together as one unit moving in the same direction; however, each individual within that unit does have a unique and vital purpose. There are foragers, guards, movers, and patrollers who are fully aware of their responsibilities and contributions to the whole. Like human organs, all parts of an ant colony must be fully functional for the whole to exist. The foragers know they get food so that the colony can eat and survive, guards know that they protect the colony so that it can thrive, and so on. The forager does not think he is better or more important than the guard, he just recognizes that they are both members of the same organization and that their contributions are equally important at ensuring the longevity of the super-organism.

Individual employees, on the other hand, are often not given a clear sense of ultimate purpose. As companies grow, employee recognition of contribution tends to blur.  Do your employees know how they are ensuring the survival of your company and given continuous recognition for their contributions? Are they encouraged to recognize each unit as equally important ingredients of the same recipe? Until total recognition and cooperation exists as the foundation of any business, growth will give way to chaos and wasted resources.

The point is that in order for companies to grow effectively – many have to operate as one. Humans are much more complicated than ants and businesses have much more sophisticated and complex goals to achieve; however, it doesn’t hurt to start thinking of your company as a super-organism. If organizations make it a priority to establish and sustain a fundamental framework of communication, cooperation, unified goals, and absolute recognition, then it can surely defy the rule of 150.

How can technology help? After analyzing the necessary steps to consider when forging a super-organism, there is no doubt that anything that facilitates these fundamentals is going to make a big difference. Companies are harnessing the power of emPerform for this very reason. Sure, it helps eliminate paper headaches but it also provides a single, unified platform for strategic organization-wide goal management, performance monitoring, communication, and acknowledgement. emPerform is ideal for growing small to medium sized businesses who are looking to get their ants in a row in order to produce business results.

To learn more about how emPerform can help turn your company into a super-organism, visit www.employee-performance.com