One less brick in the wall

A couple of weeks ago, my daughter literally took me to the NAT, our city’s Natural History Museum. There was a very interesting video projection about the human brain in the area devoted to the evolution of mammals. It was called “How many friends can I have?”. No, you cannot have as many as you want, since the size of our dear neocortex determines a very clear limitation: 150 (the famous “Dunbar number” Yolanda Garcia talked about in this post). It’s not random, then, that Neolithic populations had a maximum of 150 inhabitants, that Amish communities split when they reach 150 members or that modern tribal clans are made of 150 individuals. So, voilà! Here you have the scientific explanation to the many miscommunication issues and dysfunctional relationships that suddenly appear in an organisation when it grows beyond this magical number.

Let’s face it. It’s not a trending topic nor a crazy idea brought to light by a couple of romantic idealists. Macroorganisations are something our brain is simply not programmed for. So, the sooner we admit the fact that fitting comfortably in this type of structure is not in our DNA (even if it was the 20th century status quo’s belief), the better we will design the structures and entourages we live and work in.

However, I admit that those who are supposed to help organisations from the outside do not make an effort to make things simple for the corporate people who pledge to rethink the famous organisation chart. In fact, I never found a pyramidal or hierarchical company happy with its structure but, at the same time, they are struck by the sole idea of how on earth are they going to start to knock down the wall. Everybody has heard about holacracy, networks, flat structures and TEAL organisations but, when your starting point is an outdated-structured company, to be honest, the 21st century models look like a mirage. I can perfectly understand it.

In a manner of speaking, a hierarchy does not close its doors in the evening and, the morning after, it re-opens them having embraced the famous “start-up mindset”, automatically becoming a collaborative ecosystem. It is also true, though, that flattening a hierarchy is more about little everyday gestures which are within everybody’s reach than about big organisational drawings. Let me illustrate it with an example.

Two people first met in one of my projects. Both of them worked in the same building. Both of them had been working there for more than 10 years. Both knew about each other. Both appeared at the same time in many mail chains (those famous “cc’s”). They had two floors between them. But they first met in person in that very moment. I thought it was nothing else than an anecdote but, alas, I kept on observing the same behaviour in other projects of mine. Distorted corporate human relations.

Deep inside, the exercise of flattening the pyramid is not a masterpiece of organisational architecture. It is not the outcome of a grand internal marketing campaign either. The first action to take the bricks down is as simple as bringing to practice our natural human curiosity and enjoying the pleasure to discover the other humans working by our side or on the next floor. Walking around the office, having coffee with someone you never had coffee with before, personally meeting the people whose name appear by yours on the cc lists or who stays in the same Teams or Slack groups… All this can be a big move towards a more organic, natural model. Because, in fact, nobody ever knocked down a wall from a desk.

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