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The Dunbar Number and Value Propositions: Time to Separate the Two

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The optimal or maximum group of friends any person can keep up with is 150, or to be precise, 147.8, according to Dr. Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology, University of Oxford. He has further stated that language is the means of “social grooming” which conjures up an image you would expect from an anthropologist, namely one of reciprocity and mutual support through contact.

Popularized by best selling books including one of my favorite, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make A Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell and vocal discussions by Chris Brogan, Seth Godin and others, the Dunbar Number continues to be either assailed as irrelevant or praised as the truth.

Relationships Are The True Measure Of A Network

In the video, Dr. Robin Dunbar explains the reasoning behind the Dunbar Number.  His comments about the vast majority of friends on Facebook being more like voyeurs than real friends sets up the argument he makes that surpassing 150 friends is cognitively and from a time standpoint, extremely difficult.  Yet he saves his best points for last, and that is in the definition of just what a relationship is. A real relationship is one where there its quality is in direct proportion to the time shared and invested. As a result, they cultivate trust through reciprocation and can be counted upon during good times and bad.

Why Dunbar Doesn’t Scale As A Value Proposition

Clearly the Dunbar Number isn’t what many SaaS-based vendors are trying to turn it into, which is an artificial ceiling they claim they can help you bust through using their collaborative platforms and applications.  For example changing the mindset of a sales team to see collaboration as not weakening their competitive position in this economy is tough.  Imagine doing that across a company the size of G.E.  With so many processes tied to a sales force globally, and the scalability of those processes – not to mention the engrained habits of remote sales teams resisting change – no SaaS platform will lead these competing sales teams into the future in perfect harmony.  Vendors need to leave the Dunbar Number alone and get on with the task of making their apps more efficient, more focused on larger process-based unmet needs.

Bottom line: All the debate over the Dunbar Number serves an excellent purpose.  It reinforces what relationships really are and strips away the illusions of high follower counts connoting importance.  It also keeps SaaS platforms focused on process unmet needs first.

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