British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar, came up with the idea in a seminal 1992 essay, that the maximum number of stable relationships that a human can cope with is around 150. This is based on the development of the neocortex and also represents the approximate size of social groupings in hunter-gatherer societies. More information at good old Wikipedia if you want to find out more.
Like most of us, my business/social network is way bigger that that. I have around 4,500 Twitter followers, 3,000 or so connections on Linked In and about 5,000 email addresses in my contact book – many of them duplicates, I’m sure. In other words, far more people than I can possibly cope with and many people have far more than this.
I’ve felt a growing dissatisfaction with this state of affairs for a long time. Anyone who knows me well, will confirm that I’m a very active friend, making introductions and sending links that are relevant to them. I enjoy doing this and am not looking for a reward for this, other than the enjoyment itself.
However, like all of us, I’m frequently flummoxed by Dunbar’s Number.
In my case, it goes like this. If I’ve recently had contact with someone, they’re in my 150 – in other words, floating around my brain, so that if I see something relevant, their name will pop up ready for the appropriate action. If they’re the kind of people who send me stuff all the time (presumably, I’m in their Dunbar’s Number) we’ll soon be in a steady stream of mutual benefits. Which is great.
However, there are also people who are important to me (and I’m only talking business relationships here) who I’d like to help, who I just forget about for weeks and months. Maybe that’s the way things should be – if we’re not helping each other, perhaps we’re just not important enough to each other.
But I don’t think that’s quite the case and anyway, I don’t think I have as many as 150 names in my immediate memory. I’d easily recogise them if I bumped into them, remember details of their lives and otherwise display the characteristics of the stable relationship that Dunbar wrote about. But they wouldn’t spring to mind if I saw something that could be relevant to them.
So, I’m going to try a different approach. I’m going to prepare an old sytlee spreadsheet that contains 100 names and 10ish companies that I have close links with. Every week, I’m going to look down the list for 30 minutes and remind myself to keep a look out for my Dunbar Pals.
The list is intended to be dynamic and I expect people to be replaced by new entrants on a regular basis. And of course, I realise that some people who I’d love to be on there won’t make it. But I think that this is better than the alternative, which is to be less effective for everyone.
It’s an experiment at this stage and I’m happy to report back if anyone shows any interest. It could also be a terrible idea and I’m aware that it might be misinterpreted. However, my motivation is actually genuinely relatively selfless, so I hope you’ll be generous in your view.
I’d also add that the list is private and even the people on the list won’t know about it.
Would love to know what you think.
Now, back to my Hot 100….