Our brains can’t handle all our Facebook friends
BY Chris Gourlay / January 24, 2010
WE may be able to amass 5,000 friends on Facebook but humans’ brains are capable of managing a maximum of only 150 friendships, a study has found. Robin Dunbar, professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University, has conducted research revealing that while social networking sites allow us to maintain more relationships, the number of meaningful friendships is the same as it has been throughout history.
Dunbar developed a theory known as “Dunbar’s number” in the 1990s which claimed that the size of our neocortex — the part of the brain used for conscious thought and language — limits us to managing social circles of around 150 friends, no matter how sociable we are. These are relationships in which a person knows how each friend relates to every other friend. They are people you care about and contact at least once a year. Dunbar derived the limit from studying social groupings in a variety of societies — from neolithic villages to modern office environments. He found that people tended to self-organise in groups of around 150 because social cohesion begins to deteriorate as groups become larger.
Dunbar is now studying social networking websites to see if the “Facebook effect” has stretched the size of social groupings. Preliminary results suggest it has not. “The interesting thing is that you can have 1,500 friends but when you actually look at traffic on sites, you see people maintain the same inner circle of around 150 people that we observe in the real world,” said Dunbar. “People obviously like the kudos of having hundreds of friends but the reality is that they’re unlikely to be bigger than anyone else’s. “There is a big sex difference though … girls are much better at maintaining relationships just by talking to each other. Boys need to do physical stuff together.” Dunbar’s study is due to be published later this year.
the SOCIAL BRAIN
Your brain is hard wired to pay attention to about 150 people. Try to have a relationship with any more than that, and your life will turn to pure crap. Just ask the Military, Gore-Tex, or Krippendorf’s tribe. They’ll all tell you the same thing. One fifty is the way to go. They’ve known for hundreds of years that people work best in groups of 150 or less. Now it’s your turn. The human cortex, responsible for complex thought and reasoning, is overgrown in humans when compared to other mammals. Scientists have argued for years about why this is the case.
One theory holds that our brains evolved because our primate ancestors began to gather food in more complex ways. They began eating fruit instead of grasses and leaves. This involved traveling long distances to find food, and required each species to maintain a complex mental map in order to keep track of fruit trees. More brainpower might have been needed to determine if a fruit was ripe, or to discern proper methods for peeling fruit or cracking nuts. The problem with this theory is that if one tries to match brain size with the eating habits of primates, it doesn’t work. Some small-brained monkeys are eating fruit and maintaining complex maps and some larger brained primates are eating leaves. What does work, apparently, is group size. If one examines any species of primate, the larger their neocortex, the larger the average size of the group they live with.
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar has done some of the most interesting research in this area. Dunbar’s argument is that as brains evolve, they become larger in order to handle the unique complexities of larger social groups. Humans socialize the largest social groups because we have the largest cortex. Dunbar has developed an equation, which works for most primates, in which he plugs in what he calls the neocortex ratio of a particular species – the size of the neocortex relative to the size of the brain – and the equation gives us the maximum expected group size for each species. 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.
Dunbar has gone through anthropological literature and found that the number 150 pops up over and over again. For example, he looked at 21 different hunger-gatherer societies around the world and found that the average number of people in each village was 148.4. The same pattern holds true for military organization. Over the years, through trial and error, military planners have arrived at a rule of thumb for the size of a functional fighting unit – 200 men. They have realized that it is quite difficult to make any larger a group than this to function as a unit without complicated hierarchies and rules and regulations and formal measures to insure loyalty and unity within the group. With a group of 150 or so, formalities are not necessary. Behavior can be controlled on the basis of personal loyalties and direct man-to-man contacts. With larger groups, this seems impossible.
Further is the religious group known as the Hutterites, who for hundreds of years, through trial and error, have realized that the maximum size for a colony should be, low and behold, 150 people. They’ve been following this rule for centuries. Every time a colony approaches this number, the colony is divided into two separate colonies. They have found that once a group becomes larger than that, “people become strangers to one another.” At 150, the Hutterites believe, something happens that somehow changes the community seemingly overnight. At 150 the colony with spontaneously begin dividing into smaller “clans.” When this happens a new colony is formed.
Another good example of our hard wired social limits 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. 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. There are no bosses. No titles. Salaries are determined collectively. No organization charts, no budgets, no elaborate strategic plans. 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.
Take a lesson from this. If you are engaged in a large enterprise or are planning to work for one, realize that large groups rapidly reduce the efficiency of an operation. If each department is separated, especially if there are hundreds or thousands of people involved, complex systems of organizations will be required to keep everyone in check. Peer pressure is much more powerful than the somehow vague concept of a boss or punishment. People will work only hard enough not to get fired in a very large group, but will live up to the expectations of their peers in smaller groups where they have a personal relationship with each of their co-workers. Of course, a small group size is not by any means a guarantee of success. Small enterprises fail all the time. It’s just a concept — an idea to keep in the back of your mind as you vegetate in that basement cubicle.
HUMANS are PACK ANIMALS
The ultimate brain teaser / August 2003
Relative to their body size, monkeys, apes and humans have unusually big brains. It has been suggested that this reflects the complexity of their social lives. This hypothesis is gaining support thanks to ground-breaking research by a University of Liverpool scientist, whose methods have been taken up by primate researchers around the world. These same methods could soon shed light on the story of human evolution. Judged by our genomes, there’s surprisingly little difference between humans and chimps: 95% of our DNA is similar, making chimps our closest ape ‘cousins’. Judged by most other measures, there are significant distinctions between the two species. So, how did humans come to be so different to chimps and other apes?
Clearly, brain size plays a crucial role: all primates have big brains relative to their body size, but human brains are disproportionately large. It’s a phenomenon whose origins date back two million years, when the brain size of some of our hominid ancestors started to increase exponentially. Why did these changes take place in primates in general, and humans so particularly? Over the years, scientists have proposed a range of possible explanations. One intriguing suggestion is that primates’ brain size reflects the complexity of their social lives. Primate social systems are much more complex than other species’, routinely involving the formation of coalitions and tactical deceptions – so primates need larger brains to accommodate the computational demands of such complex behaviour. Over the past decade, a Liverpool University scientist has subjected this ‘social brain’ hypothesis to rigorous tests. His methods have been taken up by primate researchers around the world – and soon they will be shedding extraordinary light on the story of human evolution.
Professor Robin Dunbar is an evolutionary psychologist with an interest in the behavioural ecology of primates – in the interrelations between primates and their environment. Based in the School of Biological Sciences, he is widely known for developing innovative systems models of the socio-ecology of primates, using equations similar to those deployed by economists to model national economies. “Scientists around the world have recorded a huge amount of quantitative information on primates”, he explains. “There’s environmental, demographic and anatomical data, data on diet composition, on the time devoted to foraging, feeding, grooming and so on. “We extracted certain types of data relating to monkeys and apes, and used a series of regression equations to describe the relationships between the different variables. We then combined these various components into a single, integrated systems model for each species. These models enable us to identify defining behavioural characteristics – for instance, limits on the social group size of a particular species and how this varies according to habitat.” Demonstrating that there is, for instance, a species-specific a limit on social group size is one thing; finding a robust explanation for this is another thing altogether.
The social brain hypothesis suggests that socio-ecological characteristics like this are related to brain size. Robin Dunbar decided to test this hypothesis. He started by focussing on two specific measures of primate social complexity – social group size and grooming clique size. “In primate species, total group sizes may be quite large”, he explains, “but individual primates usually belong to a smaller social sub-group, on which they rely for support when conflicts break out. The number of regular grooming partners they have may be much smaller, though. For instance, chimps belong to social groups comprising about 50 individuals, but they have only two or three grooming partners.”
Robin Dunbar used the volume of the neocortex – the ‘thinking’ part of the brain – as his measure of brain size, because this accounts for most of the brain’s expansion within primates. He found that both measures of social complexity correlated with relative neocortex volume in primate species. Subsequently, he predicted the social group size of some other monkey and ape species from their neocortex volumes – with impressive accuracy. Thanks to his ground-breaking work, and the follow-on studies which it stimulated, numerous features of primate social behaviour can now be predicted from neocortex volume – from the time devoted to social interaction, the level of social skills and the degree of tactical deception practiced to community and coalition size. We can also predict when social groups will split up because their size is unsustainable; Robin Dunbar’s research shows that the volume of the neocortex imposes a limit on the number of relationships that individual primates can sustain in their mental model of their social world.
The human dimension
Humans are primates, too – so do they fit into the pattern established for monkeys and apes? This is the key question which Robin Dunbar sought to answer by using the same equations to predict human social group and clique size from neocortex volume. The results were… ~150 for social group size, and ~12 for the more intimate clique size. He subsequently discovered that modern humans operate on a hierarchy of group sizes. “Interestingly”, he says, “the literature suggests that 150 is roughly to the number of people you could ask for a favour and expect to have it granted. Functionally, that’s quite similar to apes’ core social groups.” As a principal investigator in the 7-year programme of research recently funded by the British Academy, Robin Dunbar will have the resources required to build models of the socioecology of all the great apes and contemporary foraging peoples. He aims to combine these models into a single generic model, which can then be used to illuminate the course of human evolution.
New approach to old puzzles
“Traditionally, our insights have come from ‘bones and stones’ – that’s to say, analysis of fossil remains and any evidence of their material culture, like stone tools. This tell us quite a lot, but on its own, it’s unlikely to tell us much more about either the social or the cognitive development of hominids and early humans”, he says. There are numerous puzzles to solve – for example, why did Neanderthals, some of whom lived at the same time as anatomically modern humans, fail to develop fully-fledged human-style culture? Comparative analyses across primates and contemporary foraging peoples should present new hypotheses – for instance, Neanderthals may have lacked a sufficiently large frontal neocortex to support the social cognitive skills required. Robin Dunbar’s University of Liverpool colleague, Professor John Gowlett and collaborators at Southampton University will then review the archaeological record to see whether there are data to support or undermine such hypotheses. There are two key questions which Robin Dunbar hopes to answer over the next seven years: when did hominid brains develop recognizably human minds – and what triggered this momentous development?
“Primates are, above all, social animals….These analyses suggest that although the size of the group in which animals live in a given habitat is a function of habitat-specific ecologically-determined costs and benefits …..The group size identified by this relationship appears to refer to the maximum number of individuals with whom an animal can maintain social relationships by personal contact.
It is not necessary that all these individuals live in the same physical group: chimpanzees ….Rather, the neocortical constraint seems to be on the number of relationships that an animal can keep track of in a complex, continuously changing social world: the function subserved by that level of grouping will depend on the individual species’ ecological and social context. ….current neocortex size sets a limit on the number of relationships that it can maintain through time, and hence limits the maximum size of its group. This means that although the evolution of neocortex size is driven by the ecological factors that select for group size, we can use the relationship in reverse to predict group sizes for living species
It is generally accepted that the cohesion of primate groups is maintained through time by social grooming Social grooming is used both to establish and to service those friendships and coalitions that give primate groups their unique structure. As might be anticipated, the amount of time devoted to social grooming correlates well with group size, notably among the catarrhine primates However, the relationship between group size and time devoted to grooming appears to be a consequence of the intensity with which a small number of key “friendships” (the primary network) is serviced rather than to the total number of individuals in the group
These primary networks function as coalitions whose primary purpose is to buffer their members against harassment by the other members of the group. The larger the group, the more harassment and stress an individual faces and the more important those coalitions are. It seems that a coalition’s effectiveness (in the sense of its members’ willingness to come to each other’s aid) is directly related to the amount of time its members spend grooming each other Hence, the larger the group, the more time individuals devote to grooming with the members of their coalitionary clique.
The mean size of the primary network is, however, related to the mean group size for the species. This suggests that groups are built up by welding together sets of smaller primary networks and that the total size of the group is ultimately limited not by the number of networks that can be welded together but rather by the size of the networks themselves”
For us the key group size is 150
“it turns out that most organised (i.e. professional) armies have a basic unit of about 150 men (Table 3). This was as true of the Roman Army (both before and after the reforms of 104BC) as of modern armies since the sixteenth century. In the Roman Army of the classical period (350-100 BC), the basic unit was the maniple (or “double-century”) which normally consisted of 120-130 men; following the reforms instituted by Marius in 104BC, the army was re-organised into legions, each of which contained a number of semi-independent centuries of 100 men each (Haverfield 1955, Montross 1975). The smallest independent unit in modern armies (the company) invariably contains 100-200 men (normally three or four rifle platoons of 30-40 men each, plus a headquarters unit, sometimes with an additional heavy weapons unit) (Table 3). Although its origins date back to the German mercenary Landsknechts groups of the sixteenth century, the modern company really derives from the military reforms of the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus in the 1620s. Despite subsequent increases in size to accommodate new developments in weaponry and tactics, the company in all modern armies has remained within the 95% confident limits of the predicted size for human groups. The mean size of 179.6 for the twentieth century armies listed in Table 3 does not differ significantly from the 147.8 predicted by equation (1) (z=0.913, P=0.361 2-tailed).
This fact has particular significance in the context of the present argument. Military units have to function very efficiently in coordinating men’s behaviour on the battlefield: the price of failing to do so is extremely high and military commanders cannot afford to miscalculate. Given that the fighting power of a unit is a function of its size, we might expect there to be considerable selection pressure in favour of units that are as large as possible. That the smallest independent unit should turn out to have a maximum size of about 200 even in modern armies (where technology presumably facilitates the coordination of planning) suggests that this upper limit is set by the number of individuals who can work effectively together as a coordinated team. Military planners have presumably arrived at this figure as a result of trial and error over the centuries.
In the context of the present analysis, the reason given by the Hutterites for limiting their communities to 150 is particularly illuminating. They explicitly state that when the number of individuals is much larger than this, it becomes difficult to control their behaviour by means of peer pressure alone (Hardin 1988). Rather than create a police force, they prefer to split the community. Forge (1972) came to a rather similar conclusion on the basis of an analysis of settlement size and structure among contemporary New Guinea “neolithic” cultivators. He argued that the figure 150 was a key threshold in community size in these societies. When communities exceed this size, he suggested, basic relationships of kinship and affinity were insufficient to maintain social cohesion; stability could then be maintained only if formal structures developed which defined specific roles within society. In other words, large communities were invariably hierarchically structured in some way, whereas small communities were not.
Similarly, in an analysis of data from 30 societies ranging from hunter-gatherers to large-scale agriculturalists, Naroll (1956) demonstrated that there was a simple power relationship between the maximum settlement size observed in a given society and both the number of occupational specialities and the number of organisational structures recorded for it. His analyses suggest that there is a critical threshold at a maximum settlement size of 500 beyond which social cohesion can only be maintained if there is an appropriate number of authoritarian officials. Bearing in mind that Naroll’s threshold is expressed as the maximum observed settlement size, it seems likely that the equivalent mean settlement size will not be too far from the value of 150 suggested by the above analyses.
Other evidence suggests that 150 may be a functional limit on interacting groups even in contemporary western industrial societies. Much of the sociometric research on industrial and other comparable organisations, for example, has demonstrated that there is a marked negative effect of group size on both group cohesion and job satisfaction (as indicated by absenteeism and turnover in posts) within the size range under consideration (i.e. 50-500 individuals: see, for example, Indik 1965, Porter & Lawler 1965, Silverman 1970). Indeed, an informal rule in business organisation identifies 150 as the critical limit for the effective coordination of tasks and information-flow through direct person-to-person links: companies larger than this cannot function effectively without sub-structuring to define channels of communication and responsibility (J.-M. Delwart, pers. commun.). Terrien & Mills (1955), for example, found that the larger the organisation, the greater the number of control officials that is needed to ensure its smooth functioning.
Other studies have suggested that there is an upper limit on the number of social contacts that can be regularly maintained within a group. Coleman (1964) presented data on friendships among print shop workers which suggest that the likelihood of having friends within the workplace reaches an asymptote at a shop size of 90-150 individuals. (The small size of the sample for large groups makes it difficult to identify the precise point at which “saturation” is reached.) Coleman explicitly argued that this was a consequence of the fact that there is a limit to the number of individuals within a shop that any one person can come into contact with. Moreover, his results also seemed to suggest that the large number of regular interactants that an individual can expect to have within a large work group limits the number of additional friendships that can be made outside the workplace.”
email : robin.dunbar [at] anthro.ox.ac [dot] uk / rimd [at] liv.ac [dot] uk
Co-evolution of neocortex size, group size and language in humans
The Social Brain Hypothesis
Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language By Robin Dunbar
as IMPLEMENTED by SWEDISH TAX AUTHORITY
Swedish tax collectors organized by apes / 23 Jul 07
A reorganization of workers at the Swedish Tax Authority is partly shaped on studies of apes, according to a leaked internal report. Employees are not flattered by the comparison. The tax authority is currently undergoing its largest reorganization for many years. One of the foundations of the restructuring plan is a report which says that studies of apes show that people work best in groups of 150. The reorganization was announced earlier in the summer. Work is being moved from small towns to larger towns and cities. Around 1,350 people are affected by the move. Economies of scale are a large part of the reason for the reorganization, but the authority has placed an upper limit of 150 employees per office, according to a report seen by news agency TT. The figure is justified using biological studies. “The number 150 returns again and again when discussing the size of a group which has some kind of social commonality. Evolutionary biologists have seen that primates live in social groups of varying sizes,” the report says. A comparison of the size of human brains to those of various other apes allows scientists to calculate the best group size for humans to work in. “Based on this formula we have concluded that the optimum (or largest possible) group of people is 147.8.” The military, the Hutterite religious group and hunter-gatherer societies are also examples in which groups have tended to comprise around 150 people. Employees who have spoken to news agency TT said they “seriously questioned” whether it was serious to compare them to apes. They also said it gave rise to scepticism over the basis of other elements of the reorganization, under which 1,000 people are moving workplace. A list will be published in late August of the offices earmarked for closure. No spokespeople for the tax authority were available for immediate comment on Monday.
photo from “When I got a ‘proper’ job” (Set)
GORE-TEX BUSINESS MODEL in DEPTH : NO BOSSES
BY Michael Kaplan / October 31, 1997
Working as a business leader in Gore’s military-fabrics division, Terri Kelly often finds herself disabusing outsiders of the notion that life in a world without authority figures is Utopia.
If you’ve nicknamed your boss the Walking Plague, Terri Kelly is a woman you will envy: she’s never had a boss. After graduating from the University of Delaware in 1983 with a BS in engineering, Kelly went to work for W.L. Gore and Associates, a $1.1 billion company best known as a developer of high-tech fabric. If you’ve worn a Gore-Tex jacket, you’ve had a close encounter with a Gore product. A visionary corporation, Gore is built from a blueprint that its founder refers to as a “lattice” (as opposed to a “ladder”). There is no visible hierarchy at Gore — and no job titles. In fact, there are no bosses. Instead, there are leaders who achieve their positions by gaining followers. Business goals are established by consensus. Gore’s internal “structure” was put into place in 1958 by cofounder Bill Gore, an ex-DuPont exec who believed that leaders should be chosen by the people who follow them. Working as a business leader in Gore’s military-fabrics division, Kelly often finds herself disabusing outsiders of the notion that life in a world without authority figures is Utopia.
Fantasy: You’re responsible to no one.
Reality: You’re responsible to everyone.
“Although I’m a business leader for military fabric, I’m a leader only if there are people who are willing to follow me,” says Kelly. “A project doesn’t move forward unless people buy into it. You cultivate followership by selling yourself, articulating your ideas, and developing a reputation for seeing things through.” Here is Kelly’s three-point plan for convincing fellow Goreans to buy in on her projects.
Resolve the potentially fatal flaw.
After conceiving an idea, Kelly scrutinizes the plan to find its weakest link and takes it to the person who oversees that part of the business. “Let’s say I’ve come up with a design for a winter sleeping bag for the military,” she says. “I’d go to the person responsible for marketing the bag and find out whether there’s demand for it. If there isn’t, I’d go back and try to reposition the plan. If he’s excited by the idea and thinks it’s viable, I’d bring him in on the project to help me develop it.”
Give away ownership.
Once Kelly is convinced there’s a market for the sleeping bag, she starts casting about for people from other divisions — manufacturing, design, fabric, sales — to form a core team and develop the product. “It’s a process of giving away ownership of the idea to people who want to contribute and be a part of it. The project won’t go anywhere if you don’t let people run with it.”
Connect the project with the Big Picture.
Unlike people in hierarchical companies, Kelly cannot simply draft the members of her team. She’s got to win them over. Her most reliable tactic is to show how the project will improve Gore’s bottom line.
“People here understand that the growth of our business with the military is absolutely critical to our overall success. If I paint a convincing argument that we aren’t giving the soldier our best product, then Gore employees need to think about that. And I have to show them that through their lack of action, they are opting out of the company’s future.”
Fantasy: There’s no boss standing between you and a raise.
Reality: Everyone stands between you and a raise.
“Salary raises depend on the written reviews of your peers, not on a boss’s recommendation,” says Kelly, who adds that the reviews include a numerical ranking for each person within a particular department. “The idea is that employees are not accountable to the president of the company; they’re accountable to their colleagues.” Achieving a high ranking, Kelly explains, depends in part on your ability to work on high-profile projects. Follow these steps.
Establish your credibility.
“You won’t get invited to join the hot teams until you’ve already contributed to projects that weren’t so attractive,” says Kelly. “To get ahead, you must first demonstrate that you can take ownership of a project and stick with it. Anyone can talk about going the extra mile. First you’ve got to prove to everyone else that you can do it.”
Pursue the team of your dreams.
“When it’s not immediately clear who will be a good fit on a particular team, you hope that somebody will step up and express excitement about being a part of it. People here should never wait around to be asked to join a team. They’ve got to be proactive. They have to volunteer.”
ILLUSION of CHAOS
W.L. Gore believes its egalitarian workforce philosophy–no titles, workers collaborating in small teams–fuels creativity and innovation. But as global expansion raises the need for more formalized practices, can the company maintain itself?
By Patrick J. Kiger / February 27, 2006
At manufacturing company W.L. Gore & Associates, the unconventional workplace culture has become nearly as legendary as the company’s weather-resistant Gore-Tex synthetic fabric is ubiquitous. There is the story of the employee who told company founder Bill Gore that she had to attend an outside meeting where hosts would expect her to have a job title–a custom banished by Gore, who believed that such distinctions stifled freedom, communication and creativity. He jokingly suggested that she call herself “supreme commander.” The employee reportedly liked it so much she had business cards printed with that inscription.
Over the years, the Newark, Delaware, manufacturer has grabbed the lead in numerous markets through technological breakthroughs. That strategy has been facilitated in large part by Gore’s unorthodox workforce management practices, such as a “flat lattice” organizational structure by which the company strives to encourage creativity. “We work hard at maximizing individual potential, maintaining an emphasis on product integrity and cultivating an environment where creativity can flourish,” says Terri Kelly, the company’s new president and CEO. “A fundamental belief in our people and their abilities continues to be the key to our success, even as we expand globally.”
In many ways, little has changed during the history of the 48-year-old firm, which in January placed fifth on Fortune’s list of “The 100 Best Companies to Work For.” Gore’s employees–all “associates” in Gore-speak–still are encouraged to spend at least some of their time developing pet projects in addition to their regular work. Instead of bosses, they have “sponsors” who help them find the place in the organization where their skills and interests will best fit. They recruit one another to work in scores of small teams rather than sprawling bureaucracies, and are evaluated on the value of their contribution to the team rather than strictly upon their work’s bottom-line impact. The privately held company, which had $1.84 billion in worldwide sales in 2005, up 16.5 percent from the previous year, markets more than 1,000 products ranging from heart patches and synthetic blood vessels to plastic-coated acoustic guitar strings that are more dependable than conventional metal ones.
But as Gore has grown–from 3,000 workers in the early 1980s to 7,300 engineers, salespeople, medical device assemblers and others in 45 facilities worldwide today–and shifted to supplying multinational clients whose manufacturing facilities may be scattered around the globe, the company has been compelled to tinker with its trademark culture. For other companies, Gore provides a useful lesson in how to develop more formalized practices without stifling innovation. “From a practice and operations standpoint, we have to do things a little differently,” says Gore human resources associate Jackie Brinton. “But our basic culture hasn’t changed. We still believe in the power of the individual who is given the freedom to do great things and in the beauty of small teams, even though we’re now operating on a global, coordinated scale.”
Getting bigger while staying small
The classic Gore culture began in the basement of the home of Bill Gore, who left DuPont in 1958 to create his own enlightened version of the workplace. Gore built the company upon four core principles–fairness; freedom to encourage others to grow in knowledge, skill and responsibility; ability to honor one’s own commitments; and consultation with others before taking action that could affect the company “below the waterline.” Instead of the typical corporate hierarchy, he created a “flat lattice” organization that not only had no titles, but also no chains of command or predetermined channels of communication.
In Gore’s model, associates communicate directly with one another and are accountable to their peers rather than bosses. Ideally, leaders in the company emerge naturally by demonstrating special knowledge, skill or experience –“followship.” Thomas Malone, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management and the author of The Future of Work, describes Gore as a “miniature democracy.” “The way you become a manager is by finding people who want to work for you,” Malone says. “In a certain sense, you’re elected rather than appointed. It’s a democratic structure inside a business organization.” The $1.84 billion company’s flat organizational structure makes it exceptionally nimble. “If someone has an idea for a new product, they don’t have to go up a hierarchy to find some boss to approve it,” says John Sawyer, chairman of the department of business administration at the University of Delaware. “Instead, they have to find peers in the organization who support the idea and will work with them. That open style of communication allows ideas to come up from the bottom.”
The company developed shred-resistant Glide dental floss, for example, after an associate wondered whether Gore’s industrial fibers could be used for cleaning teeth as well. Engineers at Gore’s Flagstaff, Arizona, plant worked for three years on their own to develop plastic-coated guitar string before they offered the product of their inspiration to the company, which successfully marketed it. In his 2000 best-seller The Tipping Point, author Malcolm Gladwell described Gore’s traditional practice of limiting the size of its plants to roughly 150 workers, because that was the largest group of people who could know one another well enough to converse in the hallway. Today, however, human resources associate Brinton works in a plant with more than 300 fellow associates. More important, associates in multiple countries may have to work together to service a single multinational client.
In addition to encouraging the old hallway chats, Gore now has regular plant communications meetings where leaders share with the associates news about company performance, discuss safety and introduce new workers. “It’s a challenge to get bigger while staying small,” Brinton says. Associates still work in small teams and frequently meet face to face–though in some cases the teammates may be on several continents and do much of their communicating by phone or e-mail. “It’s tough to build relationships by e-mail,” Brinton says. “For us, that’s a work in progress right now. We do bring global teams together physically on a fairly regular basis.” Brinton can’t calculate the expense of such travel, but says it is substantial. In recent years, Gore has also begun subjecting its product development process to more discipline, the University of Delaware’s Sawyer says. While associates still initiate their own projects and build support for them, an evaluation team measures their progress against metrics or goals that must be reached in order for a project to progress.
Illusion of chaos
Gore’s recruiters still spend months and sometimes years filling job vacancies because it isn’t easy to find people who not only have the right business skills, but also are temperamentally and intellectually suited for the unorthodox environment. “It isn’t a company for everyone,” Brinton says. “It takes a special kind of person to be effective here–someone who is really passionate about sharing information, as opposed to controlling it. Someone who can handle a degree of ambiguity, as opposed to ‘Here’s my job and I only do these tasks.’ Someone who’s willing to lift his or her head up from the desk and see what the business’ real needs are.”
Even those select few hires, a fraction of a percent of the 38,000 applications that the company receives annually, sometimes start with the misconception that the company is a place where employees do literally whatever they choose. “There’s certainly a misunderstanding in many cases about what freedom means at Gore,” Brinton says. “People can’t figure out how it might work. It sounds like chaos.” In reality, there is structure at Gore driven by a certain internal logic–and the belief that motivated individuals eventually gravitate toward the things they do best. The non-utopian reality is that associates are hired to fill certain set expectations and meet certain business needs–in Gore parlance, the “core commitment.” They must build credibility by performing those obligatory functions before they can pursue their own ideas and persuade other associates to form a team to work on them.
Ed Gunzel, a 12-year associate at Gore who gradually has become a technical leader, describes his path: “I started out working in new product development, the consumer side of fabrics, and really enjoyed that. But eventually, over time, I saw some areas where I could have a bigger impact, in terms of helping align teams around certain objectives and seeing where we could go with our technology for military, fire and law enforcement use. I saw that need and chose to get involved, and that’s become more of my core commitment than individual products.” These days, Gore associates use the company intranet to seek out opportunities elsewhere in the organization, but personal relationships still remain at the core of the company’s development process–the relationship between an associate and his or her sponsor, and the relationships among sponsors. “The sponsor’s role is to be broadly knowledgeable about the business, to be able to help the associate find opportunities,” Brinton says.
The mentoring process has changed slightly in recent years. In the past, sponsors might have had informal conversations about associates’ performance and prospects. Brinton says that Gore now has a more structured system, the Fall Development Process, in which teams of sponsors meet to discuss whether the associates under their guidance are in the roles that best utilize their skills and to talk about what other opportunities there might be for them in the company. “When we were smaller, everyone knew what was happening everywhere,” Brinton says. “But now that we’ve become broader globally, someone sitting in a single plant might not be able to see all the opportunities.” Even so, “we’re not moving pieces on a chessboard here,” Brinton says. “We’re making recommendations to the associates. They’re the ones who actually make the decision about what role they’re going to pursue. Sometimes, it may be in a different direction than what the sponsor suggests, based upon their passions.”
Gore’s evaluation process looks at an associate’s work but doesn’t focus strictly on the bottom-line impact. “For example, if a sales associate got involved in a training program, the person’s sales numbers may be down, but his or her overall contribution may be up,” Brinton says. “You have to look at the whole person, and whether he or she is making a contribution in a different way.” Additionally, “people can be involved with projects that weren’t successful, but still can be ranked high from a contribution standpoint,” Brinton says. “When you’re an entrepreneurial organization, you’re going to be taking some risks. That doesn’t mean that the person doing that work made less of a contribution. We’re valuing people who take smart risks. And you learn a lot from projects that fail, as well as ones that are successful.”
While other companies have instituted small, self-managed teams and some other aspects of Bill Gore’s philosophy, no imitator has taken those concepts as far as the company he founded, says Henry Sims Jr., a professor of management at the University of Maryland’s graduate business school and an expert on small, self-managing teams. “One of the things that’s different about Gore is that they started with this philosophy,” Sims says. “There’s a lot of evidence that these small, empowered teams can be very effective, but they take a great deal of time and attention to develop. And changing to that system requires a period of difficult and frustrating transition,” he says. “Once teams reach a mature stage, as they have at Gore, they can do things a lot better. They can produce products at a lower cost, bring in new processes more rapidly and smoothly, innovate more quickly.” Brinton says Gore has been able to maintain its unique approach in part because the company remains privately held. “The beauty is that we can make decisions that support our ongoing growth, and not have to just do things because we need to look good for the next quarter,” she says.