100x – Primal Sweet Spot

I’ve always loved being part of teams that are around 100 people.  For years, this was the classic size of a product unit at Microsoft – if you were in one that ran well, it was great.  The team had enough people to really get something done – most of the medium sized products at the company used to be created and built by teams around this size.  Everyone pretty much knew everybody else.  And everyone knew how to get any decision landed – you could always go to the person running the product unit and they could make the call.  You ran into that person pretty often since everyone was physically pretty close together.  The second startup I was in grew to be about this size, and it felt really good in terms of getting things done.

I watched Microsoft evolve from these kinds of teams to much larger ones, and I saw how hard it was to make those larger teams move with the same kind of speed and conviction that product units used to have.  I was moved to do a little research, and was intrigued to find that 100 seems to be a sweet spot generally for primates.  Pre-industrial human tribes were (and are) often around this size.  In visiting Africa, I noticed that baboon tribes commonly have 50-100 individuals, and some poking around on the web confirmed that this is true of other tribal primates like chimpanzees.  Because clan-based primates are intensely status-conscious social creatures, we want to be and to feel connected to the social structure that we inhabit.  Without any technology for communicating further than voice can reach, the status structure of the organization is dependent on personal interaction.  Individuals want to know how they are connected to each other and to feel a sense of membership, and direct physical interaction is a key part of that feeling.  We like to think we have evolved unrecognizably from our origins, but there is a mountain of evidence showing how deeply those early evolutionary experiences continue to shape our behavior today.

Recently, I discovered that there has been some research that supports this idea – there is a concept called “Dunbar’s number” that shows the cognitive limit on the number of people that somebody can have a stable relationship with.  150 is a common number that people have proposed for it.

What it all boils down to for me is that I really like being part of a team this size.  This section talks about ways to make them run effectively.  Have you found this to be a sweet spot for you, too?

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