Sometimes Success Is A Matter Of Numbers

“The thing I am most aware of is my limits. And this is natural; for I never, or almost never, occupy the middle of my cage; my whole being surges toward the bars.” – Andre Gide (Journals, August 4, 1930)

For some very good reasons, there are optimal numbers for working successfully with groups. For example . . .

For brainstorming:

I believe three is the perfect number for generating breakthrough ideas. You need two smart people who know the market and think of themselves as idea makers and another smart person whose opinion the idea makers respect. It is also possible to brainstorm with three idea makers. The important thing is understanding the dynamic. At any point in time, two of the idea makers will usually be talking in a dialectic (building an idea by challenging each other) while the third person listens attentively as the audience. This tension between performers and the audience brings out the best in everyone. Of course, the roles can shift fluidly. You can put more people than three around a table at your next brainstorming session, but it will not improve the outcome. If anything, it will dampen the mood.

For round-table meetings:

The rule here is “no more than eight.” And in my experience, it is a very good rule. Put two dozen people in one room, and you’ll get nothing but “less” out of a round-table meeting. Less legroom, less energy, less creativity, and less satisfaction.

So resist the temptation to be “inclusive.” Touchy-feely temptations are almost always best avoided. You know that.

For classroom-style seminars:

The limit for a classroom-style seminar seems to be 25 to 35, depending on how dynamic the speaker is. If you put 40 or more in a room, the teacher will lose control because he won’t be able to zero in on individuals.

For lecture-style seminars:

There doesn’t seem to be a limit to the audience for a lecture-style seminar. It appears to depend on the power of the speaker. I know some good speakers who are compelling with 50 people but lose their touch when the crowd gets larger. I have done a reasonable job with groups as large as several hundred. But the real pros are like Tony Robbins, who can keep thousands enthralled.

For managing your department or business:

Five is the best number. Six or seven is manageable. Eight is possible. If you have more than eight people reporting directly to you, you are in trouble. If you think you have everything under control, you have more problems than you know. The whole trick of good management is to keep this level of management small. You do that by subordinating one group inside another and either firing or demoting the weaker manager.

For a working group:

I don’t know what the M.B.A.s call it, but I use the term “working group” to signify the number of people you can effectively control. My rule here is “one level squared.” In other words, the number of your direct-line subordinates times the number of direct-line

subordinates you allow each one of them. If you run a very tight ship, that could be 25 (5 x 5). Or it could go up to 64 (8 x 8) — but that would definitely be stretching it. There is a good reason for this limitation: There’s a limit to how much attention you can pay to anything. (See Message #266, “Why You Need Professional Management When Your Company Passes the 50-Employee Mark.”)

For a division:

Malcolm Gladwell, in “The Tipping Point,” observes that there is a great deal of historical and anthropological evidence to suggest that human beings cannot effectively congregate in groups much larger than 150 people. He cites numerous records of tribal groups, exploration teams, military outfits, and so on that have naturally limited their own growth to that number. I don’t know why that should be, but it certainly is an interesting thought — that there is a natural, human limit for any working division, just as there is for a working group. What do you think? (Share your ideas on the ETR Message Board,

As Gladwell points out, there are numerical limits to what the ordinary mind can do. So if our ability to process information and make decisions is limited numerically, it makes sense that there should be some corresponding limit to the number of people we can effectively deal with. I’ve suggested some of those limits and some of the reasons I believe they matter.

Think about how you can restructure the groups in your life to incorporate these natural limits. Make the changes you can and let me know if and how they help.

For example, next time someone wants to brainstorm an idea — and there are just two of you — suggest inviting a third party to join you. Or, next time you call a round-table meeting, be a bit more selective with your invitations. Count the number of people who report to you. Pick out the five best. Think about it.