2010 will go down as the year the phrase "Make Sure That This Never Happens Again" was the constant refrain. We heard this is the financial banking fiasco, the mortgage meltdown, and the BP gulf oil spill environmental and economic catastrophe. And now the latest in the Arlington Cemetery where botched record keeping, or that lack there of, gives families no peace of mind that their loved ones are buried in the graves bearing their name.
This is a collective failure again and again to hold any responsibility for actions. Which leads to a larger question. How can we make sure the any of this "will never happen again"? There seems to be something dysfunctional going on in our culture that keeps repeating the same outcome. Have things gotten too big where responsibility for actions have become blurry and the border between right and wrong is too easily breached?
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has done extensive research in the area of human group size. For humans, the max group size is 147.8, or about 150. This figure seems to represent the maximum amount of people that we can have a real social relationship with - knowing who another human is and how they relate to us. Military planners have used this principal over the years. A functional fighting unit is never more than 200 people. Behavior can be controlled on the basis of personal loyalties and direct person-to-person contacts. With larger groups, this seems impossible. The religious group known as the Hutterites realized through trial and error that the maximum size of a colony should be no more than 150 people. Every time a colony approached this number the colony was divided into two colonies. They have found that once a group becomes larger than that, "people become strangers to one another."
Another great example is Gore Associates, a privately held multimillion-dollar company responsible for creating Gore-Tex fabric and all sorts of other high tech computer cables, filter bags, semiconductors, pharmaceutical, and medical products. Wilbert Gore - the late founder of the company, found through trial and error that 150 employees per plant was most ideal. "We found again and again that things get clumsy at a hundred and fifty," he told an interviewer some years ago. What is most unique about this company is that each company plant is no larger than 150. When constructing a plant, they put 150 spaces in the parking lot, and when people start parking on the grass, they know it's time for another plant. Each plant works as a group.
Is this possible in huge multi-national corporations? It may be the only way we can keep ourselves in check. The "too big to fail" model we have now is not working. People have lost a sense of responsibility and that is becoming increasingly dangerous in a world that has become more interconnected than ever before. What effects one group can rapidly impact other groups. Dunbar maintained that if each unit is separated, especially if there are hundreds or thousands of people involved, complex systems of organizations will be required to keep everyone in check. He pointed out that when people have personal relationships as they do in smaller groups they will live up to the expectations of their peers. Peer pressure is much more powerful than the somehow vague concept of a boss or punishment.
What has become more and more evident with each passing day is that we cannot buck how our brains are hard wired. It is most functional and responsible when it has relationships with 150 people. Any more than that and we go into dysfunction and begin to lose a sense of common purpose. Above 150 we take less responsibility for our actions, make bad judgment calls, take risks we shouldn't, and generally make a mess of things. We have to break ourselves down into smaller, more responsible pods. Otherwise we will keep running a muck causing a lot of global instability. And that is the last thing all of us need, want, or can afford in a world that is so interrelated.
Goodbye to the "too big to fail" model
Hello to the "150" model
Goodbye to the organizational hierarchies that create irresponsibility
Hello to personal peer relationships that promote responsibility
Goodbye to bigger is better
Hello to smaller is saner