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Bruce Holland

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Written by B Holland

We've all heard that everything's changing. Well, some things are, but the really important things never change ... and they never will. This has important implications for business.

We are just like the apemen

We still have the same human nature that existed 200,000 years ago when man first emerged on to the Savannah Plains ... both the strengths and the weaknesses. 98% of Human history and probably all of human evolution took place before the advent of agriculture, so it's no wonder we are hard-wired in so many ways. Because of the way we evolved, we are hard-wire to feel strongly about a few people, short distances, and relatively brief intervals of time that were important to us. We are hard-wired to be needed and included and to cooperate. Today, because of evolution, we still thrive in social groups of no more than 150 people and work groups of 10 to 15 people. We jump to irrational conclusions. When we are under stress (and often at other times too) our emotions continue to rule over our heads. We still prefer to communicate face to face around the village circle. We still think we are smarter than we are.

The big question is: Why, especially in the last 200 years, have we created work environments which are so diametrically opposed to all that's natural to Human nature?


One of the strongest drives we have built into us, is the drive to belong. The worst possible punishment was to be banished from the tribe and deserted. It still is. As managers, do we spend enough time making sure that people feel they belong and know that they are an important part of the organisation?

Look at many organisations today and one would think that the competition is the natural order of things. Sure there has always been competition, but the natural order was overwhelmingly cooperative. It had to be ... so we could hunt and gather. A considerable amount of my work is team building and improving cooperative behaviour. I work on individual beliefs, organisational culture, and internal politics. As improvements occur, it's like a butterfly coming out of a cocoon ... suddenly they realise the natural order of things and how work was meant to be.


Back on the Savannah, sitting down and systematically analysing the options and next steps was not a receipt for a long and fertile life; fight or flight was more likely to succeed. The problem is that things have become far more complex and jumping to irrational conclusions is now highly dangerous. According to Nigel Nicholson (see reference 1), we are much better at classifying things than analysing them systematically. We make judgments about things we don't know much about. And even when we do know about them we think we are better than we are. To prove this I sometimes give people a quiz of 10 questions (see reference 2) and ask them to provide a low and high guess such that they are 90% sure that the correct answer falls between the two. You may like to see how good you are with a couple of questions (see the answers at the end of this Snippet):

Number of books in the Old Testament:

low estimate= _ high estimate= _

Air distance from London to Tokyo:

low estimate!_ high estimate_

If you are like everyone else I've tested, the chances are, the answer will be outside your range. It's interesting to me that we could have all been 100% correct just by widening our range (for example, 1 to 100,000 books in the Old Testament), but no one does that. We want to think we know more than we do, so we guess too tightly. That's why we get the classic clangers like when Ken Olsen, Founder of Digital Equipment, said in 1977: "There's no reason why anyone would want to have a computer in their home" or why H. Warner of Warner Bros said in 1927: "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?".

So, given the short horizons and irrational thinking, what can we do about it? The answer is to set up processes which force us to think over longer periods of time in a more structured and systematic way, and do it often. It's called strategic planning.


I'm a change agent, not a psychologist but I know enough about Human Nature to understand that when people feel threatened or unsafe they always react with their emotions. The most important lesson in making change is to deal with emotions first. People are like an iceberg, the piece we see is the head, the logical, rational self, but actually the real person is largely invisible. At least 85% is below the surface, but it's very definitely there and it's very definitely in control: emotions, trust, feelings, fears, insecurities.

Recent studies show that 76% of change processes fail. Unless emotional blocks are dealt with first, change will not occur. Knowing how to overcome them so that change can happen is probably the most important skill I have as a change agent.


I was recently retrained in Open Space Technology (see reference 3) by its founder, Harrison Owen. Open Space Technology is a wonderful way of facilitating a large diverse group (1 facilitator for up to 1500 people) who want to solve complex and potentially conflicting issues where nobody knows the answer and the ongoing participation of a number of people is required to implement the solutions. Harrison is a firm believer in the power of the circle. In the middle of the circle is an open space which holds a special power, it's probably hard-wired in to us through thousands of years sitting around the open fire in community discussion. Anyway the more I have experimented with communications and thinking processes the more certain I am that circles are a key piece of the formula.

The question I have is why don't we use the power of this natural grouping more often in business? When was the last time you sat in a circle and planned strategically?


We are hard-wired to work best in small organisations of no more than 150 people. 150 appears to be a tipping point, smaller is okay but when the organisation is even a little bigger it leads to division and alienation.

Robin Dunbar (see reference 4) the British anthropologist studied many different sorts of primates (including monkeys, chimps, baboons and humans). He's found a close correlation between the size of the neocortex (part of the brain that deals with complex thought and reasoning) and the size of the tribe they live in. Dunbar has developed an equation, which works well for all primates. When he plugs in what he calls he calls the neocortex ratio of a particular species (the size of the neocortex relative to the size of the brain overall) the equation spits out the expected maximum size of the social group for that animal (and this proves to be remarkably accurate). When he does this for humans he gets 147.8.

Dunbar's argues that brains in all primates got bigger in order to be able to handle the complexities of larger social groups. As the size of the group goes up the number of relationships increase strongly. Humans socialise in the largest groups of all primates because we are the only one with a brain large enough to handle the complexities at this level. Anyway 150 appears to be the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuine social relationship, the kind where we know who they are and how they relate to us. Dunbar has also found that 150 is the maximum size of group in the 21 different hunter-gather groups he has studied.

Dunbar argues that below 150 it's possible to achieve cohesion and loyalty without complicated hierarchies or rules or regulation. In small groups people are a lot closer. They knit together, which is very important if you want to be effective and successful at community life. When things get even a little larger than 150, people become strangers to one another. It's a tipping point, smaller is okay but bigger leads to division and alienation.

When it comes to work teams and project teams it appears we are hard-wired to prefer groups sizes of between 10 and 15 ... reflecting the size of extended family groups and the maximum number of people that most of us can spend enough time with to know well enough to really care about.

The conclusions are clear: to achieve effective communication, cohesion and loyalty ... organisations should obey human scale and be no larger than 150 and have work teams of 10 to 15 people. I know, from all the team development work which I do, that teams structured well and taught some basic skills around relating, communicating and selling ideas can blow the socks off management expectations.


A great many things are changing, but if we were to pay more attentions to those that are unchanging we would have far more successful organisations. Lets return to human scale in the size of our organisations and work teams. Lets include people and work more cooperatively. Lets build strategic planning processes to encourage thinking beyond our natural horizon and to safeguard against our irrationality and over confidence. Lets deal to the emotional side before trying to force change through. Lets return to more face to face communications in circles.

If all this seems to make sense but it's just too hard, give me a call. I can help.


Bruce Holland

Helps large organisations be focussed, fast and flexible. Places where people have more meaning, depth and connection.

Expert in Strategy, Structure, Culture and Leadership Development.

One of NZ's most experienced change agents.

Liberating the Human Spirit at Work


  • How Hard-wired is Human Behaviour? by Nigel Nicholson, Professor London Business School, HBR July 1998.
  • From 'Decision Traps', Russo and Schoemaker, Simon and Schuster 1989.
  • Open Space Technology, a users guide by Harrison Owen.
  • Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates, By R.I.M. Dunbar, Journal of Human Evolution (1992) Vol 20


  1. Number of books in the Old Testament. 39

  2. Air distance from London to Tokyo. 9,589 km or 5,959 mi
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