“What will become compellingly important is absolute clarity of shared purpose and set of principles of conduct sort of institutional genetic code that every member of the organisation understands in a common way, and with deep conviction.”Dee Hock, Founder and CEO Emeritus, VISA
A rhizome (from Ancient Greek: rhízōma “mass of roots”), is an underground plant stem that sends out roots from its nodes. The rhizome also retains the ability to allow new shoots to grow upwards, so they appear like new separate plants.
Some tree species (cottonwoods, aspens, poplars, huon pines) are rhizomatous, so that each new tree is actually part of the other trees. They seem like separate entities but they are part of the whole.
In part one of this Thursday Thought, I introduced what I call a Rhizomatous organisation, where departments within an organisation are connected by a unifying vision, a North Star, while they expand on the strength of the whole. In part two, we look at successful organisations that have behaved just like rhizomatous plants and sprouted new entities in some cases right beside an existing one. More importantly, we explore why.
“There is no question that the dynamics of organisations change once they exceed about 150 or so. The Hutterites deliberately split their communities at this size in order to avoid having to have both hierarchies and a police force. Keeping things below 150 means you can manage the system by peer pressure, whereas above 150 you need some kind of top down, discipline-based management system.”Robin Dunbar
Our guest on Innovation Show EP 248 is Robin Dunbar, the world-renowned psychologist and author who famously discovered Dunbar’s number: how our capacity for friendship is limited to around 150 people. Dunbar found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can comfortably maintain only 150 stable relationships (including past colleagues, such as high school friends, with whom a person would want to reacquaint himself or herself if they met again.) Dunbar explained it informally as “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar”.
In his research, Dunbar breaks the 150 people up as follows:
- 5 intimate friends
- 15 good friends (including the 5 intimate friends)
- 50 friends (including the 5 intimate friends and 15 good friends)
- 150 acquaintances (all-encompassing)
Proponents of Dunbar’s number contend that numbers larger than 150 require more restrictive rules, laws, and enforced norms to maintain a stable, cohesive group, team or organisation of any kind.
You may be familiar with the name “Gore-Tex”, a waterproof, breathable fabric often used in outdoor and adventure apparel (think Timberland boots or Patagonia Jackets).
On episode 248, Robin tells us years before Dunbar’s number was revealed to the world, W. L. Gore & Associates proactively and effectively managed the growing pains of the organisation.
Today, the enterprise employs over 9,500 employees (who are known as associates within the organisation) in over 25 countries. Despite huge growth, the company still maintains a golden rule, it doesn’t allow the number of associates in any of the factories (or sites) exceed 150-200 people! Once it becomes necessary to exceed the 150 number, they build a new self-contained factory next to an existing one. One of Bill Gore’s core beliefs was that once a factory reached a certain size, “we decided” became “they decided.”
This not only obeys Dunbar’s number, but follows the pattern of a rhizome. Robin Dunbar told us, when W.L. Are feels one factory reaches its 150 threshold, they will start building another one, in some cases right next door or in the car park. Like the rhizome it sprouts from the main organisation, but contains the same DNA and follows the same principles.
Dunbar’s number partially explains why large organisations often struggle with corporate culture. It may suggest why some organisations split into silos and those silos begin to compete with one another rather than their competitors. In today’s turbulent business environment, spending precious energy on internal politics, power struggles or silo battles means you will eventually lose your war.
We are experiencing a great revolution in the today’s workplace, a workplace built on the outdated mental foundations of the industrial revolution, the church and the military. That workplace is disintegrating.
In this new world of work, the need for a unifying purpose is more important than ever before.
THANKS FOR READING
If you like this post, you may like my forthcoming book which contains a stunning foreword by Dee Hock, founder of VISA.
Undisruptable: A Mindset of Permanent Reinvention for Individuals, Organisations and Life is available at the following links…