An organisation is not a family and cannot aspire to that ideal. Outside of rare cases (e.g. in the military, certain family businesses), it’s unrealistic to expect the same levels of sacrifice and devotion that you find in a family in the modern workplace. But, perhaps we can re-imagine the company as a village?
The company as a village
We simply cannot have the bond of a family in a setting that relies so heavily on contractual relationships and financial incentives. Corporate leaders who peddle the ‘company as family’ ideal are very likely fools, bullsh*tters, or worse, manipulative. Are these leaders willing to donate a kidney to a colleague out of familial love? I think not, so let’s drop the false comparison.
If being like a family is unrealistic, the modern workplace can still aspire to be like a village. In a village, people are intimately aware of each other’s circumstances, skills and shortcomings. They also work closely together towards shared goals — e.g., food security, safety from external threats, and the general flourishing of the village.
The village, like an organisation, will be a network of various strong and weak ties. However, the glue that binds everyone together in a village is deep familiarity with each other — knowing each other’s personal circumstances and vocational specialties, along with their individual styles. It’s such familiarity and connection that become the basis for working complementarily together towards common goals.
Crucially, what makes familiarity possible in a village is size. The village is small enough that people CAN know each other very well. And, this fact has huge implications for today’s big corporate bureaucracy.
The question of size
Being sufficiently small is the first enabler of a village like organisation. But, what exactly constitutes ‘sufficiently’ small? The anthropologist Robin Dunbar discovered that there exists a relationship between the brain’s neocortex size and group size in non-human primates. Extrapolating to humans, he arrived at 150 — the now famous Dunbar’s number — because human’s have an exceptionally large neocortex¹.
What’s very interesting is that we find evidence of Dunbar’s number in all sorts of different human systems. From the basic fighting unit of Roman soldiers (130), and the average size of 18th century English villages (160), to the upper limit of ‘friends’ (150) that people tend to have.
The takeaway for the modern organisation is that large size (>150) creates anonymity and distance where employees can’t really know each other. We simply lack the mental and emotional bandwidth to manage too many relationships. 150 is already quite a lot of people!
Marx was half right
Interestingly, even Karl Marx noted the problem, but he misattributed its cause to some confused idea of class struggle. Marx’s idea of “alienation” — separation of worker from product due to division of labour — is really about the problems of scale². What Marx failed to grasp is that when organisations become too large, they automatically turn workers into cogs in a faceless machine with hierarchical layers of bureaucracy. Because that’s the easiest road to growth and mass production. And, we can see this phenomenon across different aspects of society, not just in the workplace. We find scale leading to alienation of:
- Employee from fellow employee (they don’t even know each other)
- Consumer from producer (those who make the product don’t meet the users)
- Citizen from elected (it’s easier to meet your local councillor than the prime minister)
- Citizen from citizen (how many in big cities know their neighbours?)
Greater the size, greater the alienation and loss of our humanity. It was the insights of Nassim Taleb on the problems of scale that led me to see just how pervasive this challenge is in modern life, both inside and outside the workplace³. Forget families and villages, modern corporations operate on a scale that is more like a small city.
We must not forget that scale brings benefits too, otherwise we wouldn’t tolerate it. For example, consumer and producer may be alienated, but society may gain numerous affordable, mass-produced items. This may be good or bad, depending on your perspective — my point here is that it happens for a reason. Something is sacrificed and another thing gained. The question is — is the sacrifice worth it, and can we mitigate it or find another way?
Different organisational structures
Indeed, different organisational structures have evolved over the decades to try and overcome difficulties with the traditional hierarchical company organised by Function. These include Divisional structures, Matrix structures and newer Lattice and Agile Structures. Agile and Lattice structures in particular try to keep size below the 150 threshold, while giving teams a great deal of autonomy.
The most famous exponent of the Lattice is the US fabric manufacturer W.L. Gore and Associates that never lets its self-contained, multi-function plants grow beyond 200 employees. It merely sets-up a new plant to accommodate growth. So, knowledge of size and Dunbar’s number is slowly making its way into the modern workplace, but not nearly fast enough.
What’s interesting is that when an organisation first starts out, it actually looks much more like a small village, before growth breaks-up the initial village-like structure. This is very naturally the case where a small founding team works closely together to develop the product. Over time, success and growth end-up creating the modern big corporate, where it’s difficult to even function like a village, let alone a family.
Of course, different businesses will inevitably call for different structures — a virtual company with all employees working remotely will be very different to a car manufacturer. Whatever the chosen structure — the point is to realise the alienating impact of scale and incorporate this understanding into how the organisation is set-up and grows over time.
Small size is necessary but not sufficient
But, focusing on size alone is not going to cut it. Keeping size low creates the necessary structural conditions for a village-like environment where it’s possible to know everyone and to access key decision makers with ease. But, size alone is not sufficient. You will need to actively create a culture of togetherness and connection if you want to have the glue of a village. This takes intention and determination because modern, urban life is fundamentally anonymous-transactional. Anonymity is the wider social context within which the modern workplace exists and this cannot be ignored4.
So, small size is the necessary structure that allows village-like bonds to emerge, but these bonds still need to be nurtured. This is the realm of organisational culture and it has to be a priority. For example, even W.L. Gore and Associates that religiously adheres to a 200 rule still has four principles that guide organisational culture —”freedom, fairness, commitment, discretion”.
Creating the company as a village
If you want to create a village-like culture, you must start by being honest about what an organisation can and cannot be. Leaders must be truthful about the fact that a company can never be a family. At best, what we can probably do is create something like a village. And, the company as a village is more than just good enough, it’s a place where high performance is enabled through close human connection! The company as a village is an ideal worth aspiring to.
1. Friends — Robin Dunbar
2. Estranged Labour, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts — Karl Marx
3. Anti-fragile — Nassim Taleb
4. Machine Ego — Harsha Perera
Harsha is a 1:1 coach and independent thinker based in London. He empowers people to find more clarity, confidence and focus in their lives — to cut through the noise, in a world so full of it. Harsha’s new book, Machine Ego: Tragedy of the Modern Mind, is now available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon.