In my previous post, I mentioned that W.L. Gore & Associates limits their plants to 150 people. A Gore associate named Bob Hen said, "People used to ask me, how do you do your long-term planning. And I’d say, that’s easy, we put a hundred and fifty parking spaces in the lot, and when people start parking on the grass, we know it’s time to build a new plant." They don’t add to the existing plant, or start double shifts or anything, they just build a new plant with another 150 parking spaces. Why 150? "We found again and again that things get clumsy at a hundred and fifty," said Wilbert "Bill" Gore, the late founder of the company.
The Hutterites, a religious group that came out of the same tradition as the Amish and Mennonites, have a strict policy that every time one of their colonies approaches 150 people, they split in two and start a new one. They’ve been doing this for hundreds of years. Why 150? "Keeping things under 150 just seems to be the best and most efficient way to manage a group of people," a Hutterite leader said, "When things get larger than that, people become strangers to one another."
Military planners over the years have arrived at a rule of thumb that says functional fighting units cannot be substantially larger than 200 men, despite advances in technology that we might think would increase efficiency and the ability for larger groups to coordinate their efforts. The reason probably has soemthing to do with the fact that for people to work together as a unit, they have to be familiar with each other, the raw fact is that human beings are limited in the number of people we can be familiar with (again, despite technology – just because you have 9000 "friends" on your Myspace account doesn’t mean you have 9000 friends).
Of course it’s possible to do all these things with larger groups, but when groups are larger than 150, you have to impose structural and hierarchical rules and regulations to command loyalty and cohesion. When the groups are under 150, "orders can be implemented and unruly behavior controlled on the basis of personal loyalties and direct man-to-man contacts. With larger groups this becomes impossible," says anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who has done some convincing research on the "social capacity" of humans.
It’s fascinating that all of these varying groups have arrived at 150 as an optimal number for "informal" structure and cohesion to take place. I wonder if it says anything about how we build and structure our churches as they grow. Malcolm Gladwell says of W.L. Gore & Associates, "In order to be unified–in order to spread a specific, company ideology to all of its employees–Gore had to break itself up into semi-autonomous pieces. That is the paradox of the epidemic: that in order to create one contagious movement, you often have to create many small movements first."