The magic number 7
As a psychology undergraduate we were taught the “magic number 7” theory on Day One of our course.
It’s the number of anything that the human brain has evolved to process comfortably. It can be seven numbers, letters, words, or chunks or information. Its been tested literally millions of times and holds true in all sorts of contexts.
It’s important because most of our social life is constructed to maximise our ability to comfortably process information in the way our brains can most easily handle. Otherwise, evolution would have taken care of us before Google and Uber does.
7 is cosy!
It also applies to social relationships. Seven is the number of close, seriously close, kinship bonds we can meaningfully invest in. That means going beyond casual friendships or distant family, Facebook friends and people you see in the pub now and again. It means the people that you would put everything on the line for – maybe even sacrifice your life for – and they would do the same for you. That’s a nuclear family plus a couple of grandparents, for example. Or a small tribe or clan.
From the tribe to the company
Here is where it gets relevant to your business. Remember when you started your business and you could get everyone in the same room – the same kitchen even! You didn’t need policies, documents, internal protocols, intranets, professional management development consultants or any of that stuff. Your bonds were so close, you probably spent more time with each other than your own family. Not suggesting you’d die for them….but you get the picture.
When you grow, things start to get more complicated. This kicks in at different points for different businesses but the rule of thumb is, by the time you’ve got to three lots of “sevens” – i.e., 21 people, you will have lost that clan/tribe feel.
The drivers for this go very deep and are based in our biology. We’ve evolved to behave in ways that enable us to process information in the most efficient way. Our brains didn’t want to be struggling to work hard while we were foraging for food or running away from a predator. Once we’ve got to a unit of 7 people, it becomes a “chunk” – and can be treated by our brain – almost – as one piece of data. Combine complex pieces of data together however, and our efficiency starts to fade. And because a chunk of data of 7 people is actually pretty complex, it doesn’t scale up in quite the same way as 7 simple pieces of data – like a single letter or numeral.
How does this affect our brain?
We react to this by feeling stress and uncertainty. This is translated into our inability to form as close a bond with those outside the “magic number” as those within. Again and again, ethnographic studies have shown that these emotions start up once a group size hits about 21. It’s at this stage that we start to see strong identification with the group itself. That “in-group-outgroup” dynamic that anyone who’s ever been in a competitive team environment will know.
That’s why, as you grow your business you will find that hitting your 21st employee is a milestone. Its at that time that you are probably thinking about formalising the ways you do things, as your employees are no longer known deeply to you. You will probably need some dreaded policies. It’s time to talk to someone who has experience of this journey and can guide you well. A great software platform such as Air can really help at this point – enabling you to bring in the latest tools to build a fantastic company culture with motivated, productive employees.
Look to the future
It’s really important that you take a step back to congratulate yourself on coming this far and enabling 21 people to earn a living and support their families. And it’s important to look to the future to see what’s missing from the next stage of your successful growth. This is the time to put in place the essential foundations for the next stage of your growth journey. Let Air help you grow your business- we’ve been there and done the journey, now we want to help you.
Find a useful free HR policy template library for all those essential HR policies here, and read more of our best ideas for succesful growth here.