Dunbar’s Number and High Performance Teams

I sometimes describe Collaborating Minds as an effort to create the world’s largest high performance team. We believe that we will need about 500 members to have sufficient diversity in terms of expertise and knowledge. How are we thinking about size and scale as we design this? There are multiple aspects of scale to consider; here I want to focus on whether 500 is too big to be called a team.

Dunbar’s Number certainly seems to be among the relevant factors. Robin Dunbar is a professor of Experimental Psychology at Oxford and his research on primates suggests a limit on human’s innate ability to form and maintain close social relationships. In a Businessweek article from January 2013, Dunbar offered this definition:

“The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us,” Dunbar has written. “Putting it another way, it’s the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar.”

(Drake Bennett, “The Dunbar Number, From the Guru of Social Networks”, Bloomberg Businessweek, January 10, 2013)

Dunbar offered his own thoughts in a TEDx talk in London in 2012.

A key element that differentiates high performance teams from ordinary teams is that team members in a high performance team develop and demonstrate a level of social connection and interest in each other beyond the immediate task at hand. That social cohesion won’t simply occur on its own. If we want that cohesion to develop (we do), we have to support it in the design of the system and the organization.

Among the elements of Collaborating Minds designed to create and sustain social cohesion, you’ll find:

  • Member profiles that encourage sharing some of the details you would reserve for a get together after work rather than a job interview
  • Mechanisms to share problems members are working on and to offer help to one another with them
  • Rewards and encouragement to connect and interact with other members

I have two questions I would appreciate some help with:

  1. What practices and techniques have you seen that promote better cohesion in virtual groups?
  2. What teams or groups can you point to that are worthy of study?

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