There is an interesting discussion on optimal organization size by Rick Falkvinge in his book Swarmwise. The author of Swarmwise, Rick Falkvinge, knows quite a bit about organizations having served in the Swedish military, he held positions within technology companies, and most recently and relevantly, built an effective swarm that propelled his newly invented Pirate Party from an idea to “the largest party by far for voters under 30, with 25% of those votes.” It appears that the Pirate Party did not make it to Swedish Parliament but came very close receiving 3.9% of the required 4.0% entry threshold.
Some interesting things about Swarmwise so far:
1. The book is completely free under a Creative Commons Noncommercial-Attribution 3.0 license. Basically you can make as many copies of the book and redistribute as you please, the only limitations being in that attribution must be given to the author and copies of the book cannot be sold. Swarmwise is not a typical e-book; it’s a full length book at over 300 pages that thus far rivals if not surpasses paid management and organizational behavior books.
2. Rick Falkvinge brings some interesting insight within Swarmwise undoubtedly from his unique combination of military, IT, and entrepreneurial background.
3. The swarm concept is really interesting in that there is lots of new information here grounded in traditional management and organizational design. Swarmwise keeps the effective, removes the ineffective, and adds new techniques which provides for a really interesting read.
4. Rick Falkvinge describes in great detail about his experience in directly applying these principles through the concrete example of building the Pirate Party. This is not simply a book of management abstractions – the management abstractions are tied to concrete implementation within the framework of the Pirate Party organization. It appears that like many great entrepreneurial endeavors, this approach was developed out of necessity rather than pre-determined design. It appears that Rick Falkvinge had a need to manage the unexpected, explosive growth of the newly created Pirate Party and used his experience and knowledge to create something on the fly.
According to Falkvinge, when building a swarm it requires a focal point based on established principles about how people work in social groups. This focal point is a scaffolding of officers who support 95% of the swarm. Notice the key difference here, it is not manage or control, but support the activities of the swarm. I liken it to the principle of a scrum master removing impediments for a team with Agile methodology. The officers are there to facilitate the growth and output of the group. The group itself is self-organized and self-determining.
Falkvinge outlines three magic group sizes. The first is a small tight-knit work group comprised of seven people. The number seven is important as beyond this point it is difficult to maintain optimal group cohesion as the team spends more time managing relationships as opposed to moving the swarm forward. To get a sense of how relationships scale with group size, a group of two people only requires maintaining two relationships, a group of three has three relationships, and a group of five has ten relationships. A group of seven has twenty-one relationships, beyond the seven the group becomes inefficient and there is a diminishing return.
This is consistent with my experience and is probably why I gravitate towards creating and participating in small groups of capable individuals. I have always enjoyed working with small groups of capable individuals who come together for a common purpose as opposed to larger loosely connected groups even though many times resources are limited in such groups.
Falkvinge outlines the following constraint when building a small group:
“What we learn from this is that scaffolding needs to be constructed so that no more than seven people work closely with one another in a given right context.”
Swarm team design is an interesting mix of formal and informal organization. The majority of the swarm is informal and self-organizing. However the officer scaffolding possesses elements of a traditional hierarchical design. Some degree of hierarchy is necessary to guide the swarm in the direction of overarching swarm objectives, otherwise a productive swarm output will be impossible over long periods of time. Falkvinge does an excellent job of explaining this difference early in his book:
“As we describe the swarm concept, it is easy to think of pure decentralized amorphous clouds of people, like Anonymous or the Occupy Wall Street movement. However, while these swarms share values, they do not share direction or method. That means thy are confined to succeeding on small products that span a relatively small number of people over a relatively short time span, even if each of those small projects builds gradual awareness of the Anonymous or Occupy brands.
The weak cohesion of the Anonymous and Occupy brands can partially be ascribed to their choice of being leaderless. While this brings resilience, as no leader can be targeted by adversaries, it sacrifices direction and purpose. I’ve found that the typical Internet methods of inclusion, when combined with strong leadership, work much better to achieve global change than working leaderlessly under little more than a common flag.”
This has been consistent with my experience as well. Although there are challenges with overcoming gravity when creating a new team and adding members, later challenges present themselves with maintaining energy, momentum, and group cohesion over time. Many groups have a short burst of energy and momentum in the beginning and then fizzle out quickly, a flash in the pan.
Falkridge presents an interesting officer scaffolding with a formal and informal mix within the context of his political party:
One question I had was how the middle city lead was selected to facilitate the next tier. I suspect this is determined within the team, the team selects someone within their group who they all find acceptable to lead their group and facilitate the next level of activities. This was not directly laid out in this particular section of Swarmwise but the author had mentioned leadership selection at other points. This is similar to an approach I had read in the “Evolution And Revolution As Organizations Grow” paper in overcoming growth challenges at certain points of an organization’s growth.
The largest number of individuals that you would want in a team is 150 which is referred to as Dunbar’s Number or the Dunbar Limit. Falkvinge describes the rationale behind the importance of this limit:
“The number 150 appears in tons of places through human organizational history. It is our maximum tribe size. In a given context, we have the capacity to know this many people by name and have the loosest bonds with them.”
Falkvinge provides some interesting examples of this limit applied in practice:
“The most successful companies, organizations, and cultures are keenly aware of this human limit. To take the Amish as one example, as their settlements approach 150 in size, they split the settlement in two. The company Gore and Associates – more known as the makers of the Gore-Tex fabric – never puts more than 150 employees in a single plant.”
Once a group hits 150 it should be broken down into smaller groups. Although this principles applies to both formal and informal groups, when building a team it is much more likely that you will encounter this challenge with informal groups.
The final group size is thirty people:
“This is a group which falls between our tight working group and those we know by name, but not much more: we are capable of knowing more than just their names in the group of thirty, we know a couple of interests and curious facts about the others in this group, but we can’t work tightly with all of them. It can be thought of as an extended family.”
And this is how the thirty person group applies in practice:
“You will probably have a couple of formal groups that are about thirty people in size, like the assembled group of all officers and leaders for a certain function or geography.”
Given the presented group sizes it appears that seven is the optimal size for getting things done and no particular group should ever exceed 150. The thirty person group appears to be an infrequent result of cross-pollination among the same or similar roles among various subgroups.
I find the concept of an open group with limited constraints fascinating. I have worked in groups of three and five on many occasions and have found the these team sizes to be extremely effective. I haven’t tried seven yet and would be interested in doing so. Furthermore, I would be interested in experimenting with this concept in a for-profit setting. The Gore and Associates example was fascinating and I am curious as to if there are any other profitable examples of companies who have employed the swarm team building strategies of limiting team sizes to seven, thirty and 150.
In addition, when building my own teams I have typically gravitated towards tightly managing the quality of a team. For example, by limiting a team size to quality metrics such as qualification, experience, number of sales, design elegance, etc. Falkvinge proposes the concept of complete inclusion. I wonder how one would manage to avoid diluting the quality of the team by including everyone and anyone? I have found that when I do not keep the membership tight it tends to dilute the quality and the more effective members would drift over time.
I am interested in hearing if anyone reading this has had any experience with building teams with the 7/30/150 constraint and if so how you managed to maintain the quality of the group.