Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Rule of 150, minus three

About ten years ago I began working with a small tiny Internet company. Did you notice that I say "with" -- not "for"? I was an employee, not a temp, not a consultant, but we were a small group and we worked with each other.

When I began I was the eighth person in the group. They began as five, tightly knit as the saying goes, working closely with each other to manage and sell bandwidth on a small fiber optic network. Changes in the telecommunication industry and the emerging Internet phenomenon steered the little company toward a path of sudden growth.

At the beginning it was a perfect fit for me. They were doing, or were about to do, exactly what I wanted for my career. It was exciting. It was perfect. It was fun. We didn't worry much about job titles or job descriptions or hierarchy. We did what needed to be done, and we had fun doing it. One day I was chatting with one of our Vice President of Sales, and I told him:

"Some days I feel like the janitor. But some days I feel like a Vice President."

"Me, too!" he said. "Me, too."

But the fun didn't last. We bought into the idea that bigger is always better, so we tried to get bigger. We tried to get bigger even faster than everybody else was trying to get bigger. In just months I went from one of eight, sharing offices with real doors that we didn't need to be closed and sharing jazz CDs and janitorial outlooks with vice presidents, to one cubicle gopher among hundreds. I had quickly become just another one of the seven hundred strangers scattered throughout three buildings, surrounded by acres of parking lots.

Late one afternoon I was chatting with a couple of close colleagues from "the good old days". The three of us lamented that we didn't know anybody anymore. Our little company had become BIG. And bigger just didn't seem better, after all.

My friends left for the day, but I stayed and pulled out a company phone directory. I began counting the names of the people I actually knew. Not just names I vaguely recognized, but people I knew. There were a lot more unknown names than known ones. I scanned quickly until I came to a name I knew, and then I found myself pausing to reminisce. Eventually I came to the end of the list. I remember the number clearly:


Out of almost 700 people working for the company (notice I say "for", not "with"), out of 700, I knew exactly 147. I put away the phone list and went home. By the next day I had forgotten this depressing counting exercise.

Things went downhill from there. Three years later the rollercoaster was coasting to a bumpy stop. Even though most of them were strangers, I felt bad for the hundreds of people whose jobs were shed in a series of increasingly painful lay-offs; people whose lives were hurt by the decisions of strangers they didn't know either. I was fortunate to exit with some degree of dignity and grace. Not with a golden parachute. Not as a millionaire. But I got off the ride with only minor damage to my psyche.

That left me with plenty of time to catch up on some reading. During one trip to the library I noticed a book called The Tipping Point, by Malcolm Gladwell. I remembered that one of my two closest colleagues had been intrigued by it, so I checked it out.

I'm fond of saying that most models are wrong, but some are useful. The Tipping Point is useful. Malcolm Gladwell applies the epidemiological concept of a tipping point to fads and fashions and social changes in modern life. In the middle of it he describes "The Rule of 150". Drawing on scientific research, business operation of the unusual company that made Goretex, and leadership insight from military history and agrarian villages, Gladwell describes how we humans work best in social groups limited to a maximum of 150 people.

Not 150 thousand. Not 150 million. Just one hundred fifty. Larger groups tend to fragment and organizations tend to fall apart at the seams if they don't account for that limit. Things fall apart when we don't observe the Rule of 150.

Gladwell describes a simple exercise to illustrate the Rule of 150 to readers. Open a phone book and count the number of last names you recognize.

Open a phone book. Count the names you recognize.

Well, I had a flashback, of course. A visual image popped into my mind so suddenly that it startled me. Years had passed. I had totally forgotten my depressing scan of my former employer's phone list. But when I read those instructions I could see the number 147 scribbled in the margin of an old phone directory.

For me that was a more than an exercise. I knew from unpleasant personal experience what the Rule of 150 meant. Things fall apart when we ignore the Rule of 150.

There's more to The Tipping Point besides the Rule of 150. There's more I could write about it, but this is not a book review.

Most models are wrong, but some are useful. The Tipping Point presents a useful model. The Rule of 150 is important. In fact, I suspect The Rule of 150 will turn out to be absolutely crucial if we are to make a successful transition to a sustainable human culture.


A primatologist who writes at the blog, The Primate Diaries, contributes a related perspective on cities full of strangers and wonders, Who's your neighbor?

The Tipping Point, at Gladwell's web site

1 comment:

GreenSmile said...

No idle question that. In three very diverse conversations with three friends of very different backgrounds and ages, one with relatives in Israel who led a committed Kibbutznik socialist life, one a libertarian communist who founded a long lived and financially stable commune and one a recent addition to an ecovillage community of co-housing enthusiasts...each of them wondered about the decay or dysfunction of those groups that might be attributed to two things: having more people involved and any one person could really deal with and having to live at closer quarters than any group larger than a nuclear family is commonly expected to do.

BTW, there are many echos of your thoughts on the "right size" for a company, e.g. Tektronix founders thought: It was also during the 1950s that "Tek culture" began to take shape. Even before the company was founded, Murdock had insisted that future employees would be treated with respect, everyone would be on a first-name basis, and there would be no perks for executives. Murdock even talked about the ideal size for a company to maintain a casual, family atmosphere--no more than a few dozen people. Although Tektronix paid lower wages than other manufacturers in the Portland area, the company provided medical coverage, profit sharing, and other benefits. There were few unbreakable rules, and engineers were encouraged to pursue their individual interests. Tek culture was praised by management consultants, and Tektronix was cited in the book The 100 Best Companies to Work for in America. However, Tek culture was later blamed for some of the company's inability to adjust to competitive changes in the 1980s.