What Dunbar’s Number means in business today

In the tech industry, it’s common practice to invoke “laws” (Moore’s Law) and “rules” (80/20, aka the Pareto Principle) as a way to shorthand real-world phenomena that, frankly, would take a long time to explain otherwise. Dunbar’s Number is a prime example of one of these “laws” and is a critically important construct for contact management and, more broadly, social media going forward.

Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist, posited that the average human brain is limited in the following way:

It is suggested that the number of neocortical neurons limits the organism’s information-processing capacity and that this then limits the number of relationships that an individual can monitor simultaneously. When a group’s size exceeds this limit, it becomes unstable and begins to fragment.

Dunbar’s Number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These social relationships number between 120 and 230 people at one time, but the “number” has been averaged out to 150, seemingly for simplicity’s sake, and is the most oft-cited figure when talking about Dunbar’s Number (or law).

Why Should You Care?

At Nimble, where our relationship manager connects all your contacts together from email, multiple social networks, imports and the like, we ran a few anonymous searches and found the average number of contacts in the typical Nimble individual Business Plan user account to be 4,065. This is more than 27 times larger than Dunbar’s Number suggests we can monitor and sustain. My suspicion is that these networks are similar for those who aren’t using Nimble.

Each of us faces a daunting prospect each time we wake up in the morning and head off to our business: How do we manage all of the contacts in our networks?

The problems of scattered data and information overload are simply outgrowths of the natural limits of our mammalian brain. Cold comfort, I’m sure, for roles where the problem is especially acute (and where relationships matter most): sales, business development, recruiting, consulting, marketing and especially executive management, to name a few.

Ideally, attacking this problem requires a new way of thinking about relationships, even though it can be hard to think of our best relationships—professional connections included—as quantifiable.

Perhaps some of our best thinking here is to start by assembling the most complete picture of each contact, as well as recalling as much history of interaction as possible. We can start compiling a rich, consolidated record where context makes all of the difference.

If Google has taught us anything over the past 15 years, it’s that the brain is wonderfully facile at turning keywords and snippets of information into a whole, like a mosaic. With the right cues, we can enter an informed “flow” whereby the current interaction is easy and fresh, yet builds on shared history.

I’ve heard of this type of information provisioning referred to before as a mental prosthetic, and I think it’s an apt metaphor. Challenged by large numbers, we seek out a calculator. Challenged by injured, incomplete or lacking body parts, we seek artificial, often highly advanced robotic limbs. To the challenge of relationship management in the age of social media, limited by Dunbar’s Number, we ideally should seek out an insightful relationship manager that has our prostheses “in mind!”

This is how we have been framing and ultimately tackling these challenges, in the language of software, where many of our specific features draw clues from the basic cognitive needs to pull what’s useful and immediately intuitive about contacts right to the top — in order to find ways to keep you efficient, informed and knowledgeable– helping you see the big picture of each of your approximately 4,000 relationships. The outcomes suggest more stable relationships with a greater number of people across a wider variety of touch points — Dunbar’s Number be darned.

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