Controlled growth

When you start a Company, you begin with a small group of colleagues. Initially hired for the technical abilities the business needs. But soon, through departures and hirings, you find yourself surrounded by a group of like-minded people. The non-aligned self-select themselves out, or you will let them go because they don’t feel like a good fit. There’s nothing rational in this, which is why it works so well. All successful leaders hire and retain for attitude.  But at some point even they reach the headcount threshold that challenges the culture.

Army officers will tell you that the optimum unit size for effective command is 100 soldiers. Big enough to operate independently, yet small enough for the leaders to know their troops intimately. Serial entrepreneurs talk about the moment when you can’t remember the names of the people you meet in the corridor.

British Anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, coined the Rule of 150 as “a cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships.”  I would imagine the actual number would vary by nature of business. But I agree that there comes a point when the leadership needs to stop and think about how best to tackle the next phase of growth.

Carrying on as before may feel safer but invariably leads to stress and sometimes to failure. I believe that this is the moment when you need to consolidate the best aspects of your organisational culture and actively train new joiners and refresh existing staff on ‘the way we do things around here.’Usually, you will need outside help with this, for the benefit of objectivity. It is very hard to reform a culture from the inside out, and the top down. What you are looking for is not just greater efficiency (any kaizen junkie can find you that). Instead,  you are looking to establish the right attitude for the next stage of the journey.

I’ve just returned from safari in the East African bush. A great place to rediscover what is really important. Amidst all the mating and giving birth; fighting for territory;  and hunting and killing I was drawn to a smaller, quieter world where organisational culture is paramount. I’m talking of the ants, whose collaboration is so fluid and seamless that their teeming hosts are often labelled super-organisms.

Ants are all aware that individual strength pales into insignificance beside collective effort. Goals are communicated; tasking and resources constantly adjusted. Their social hierarchy is clearly understood, but at every level, they act in the best interests of the whole group. That attitude is their winning secret.

Chris Harrison leads The Brand Inside in Africa

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