Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Clarifications, Part I

I love Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point. I love how American Apparel has created a great work environment instead of abusing their employees. I think they're revolutionary and I wish them all the success in the world.

That being said, the ideas they say are the entire reason for their success are flimsy. They explain it with a pretty idea and try to fit it snugly into place. By doing that they create a Garden of Eden sort of imagery where everything is perfect. And when it's not, it causes inflation. Which causes bullshit. Which brings me to one of my points:

The Rule of 150 in a work environment is bullshit.

Here is the definition for Dunbar's number (what the Rule of 150 is based on):
"Dunbar's number is the supposed cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable social relationships: the kind of relationships that go with knowing who each person is and how each person relates socially to every other person."
In The Tipping Point Gladwell paints the Gore Association's business as a glorious, free environment where everyone knows each other well. No overall strategies are planned and salaries are decided as a group [1]. They are all called "Associates" on their name tags, with no bosses but "sponsors" or "mentors". They attribute this great work environment to the Rule of 150.

It's bullshit. If the Rule of 150 applies perfectly to this situation then it stands to reason that these workers know no one outside their workplace. If they did, it would be surpassing the 150 stable relationships they could maintain. If an employee did have friends he would lose "contact" with several of their co-workers and according the the Rule of 150 (in a workplace), it would wreak havoc and nothing would get done. Management would have to be implemented and freedom would be stifled.

This hasn't happened though.

So how does Gore Associations function then?

It functions because 150 is an arbitrary, small number for the work place. The size is the most important factor here. Not everyone at Gore Associations knows each other, but because the size is kept down, people can address small groups of people easier than addressing a giant workforce. It's small enough that the pressure situation still exists. It's not a situation where everyone there knows each other well enough to "sit down with them at a bar without there being anything uncomfortable," [2] but a situation where communication costs are low enough to get things done effectively.

There could be 170 workers or 130 workers. Perhaps Gore Associations just found 150 to work perfectly. If they did though, they can't entirely attribute it Dunbar's number. It simply isn't a perfect Utopian workplace Gladwell makes it out to be. Some workers are bound not to know everyone and that's okay. What's important is that they are kept small.

Half of this company's success is based on low communication cost. Half of it is about group pressure. The group pressure could have been used by Gladwell for a point about context, but he decided to try to cram it all into the Rule of 150.

Which made it bullshit.


[1] Gladwell never goes in depth on how the process works. I would LOVE to hear more about it.
[2] I remember reading this, but for the life of me I can't find it to point out a page number.

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