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How to Grow Your Company Without Sacrificing Your Culture

The Growth Paradox

While many businesses are struggling right now, or at least hunkering down to see what the medium-term effects of the economic disruption will be, some companies are still thriving.

We are seeing a lot of fast-growing businesses, especially digital and creative companies who are well-suited to being agile and working flexibly, still working as hard as they can and recruiting to meet demand.

One of the things we get asked about a lot is when to work on your culture.

There is a growth paradox: your brilliant culture is part of what helps you to do brilliant work, attract talent and thereby grow. But by growing, somehow that brilliant culture gets watered down or even fragments.

Can you grow and keep your culture? Or does culture have to be sacrificed on the altar of growth?

The answer is, it isn't ‘either/or,’ Many successful companies have shown you can have your cake and eat it by growing and keeping your culture as the foundation-stone of your winning formula.

But when is the right moment to get conscious about your culture rather than leaving it to chance?

Jeff Bezos once said that ‘Your brand is what people say about you when you aren’t in the room’ and we believe, your culture is no different. As soon as you have others that can talk about what it is like to work in your business, you have a culture – even if you have not defined it.

Don’t worry, we’ve got your back! Not only do we have loads of experience to draw on, there’s some really useful research as well.

Why small monkeys have less friends and big wedding parties feel weird

Robin Dunbar – a psychologist and anthropologist – stumbled across a now famous idea, that has been applied in various businesses, when reflecting on a theory in a related field. This theory suggested that primates have large brains because they live in socially complex societies. If that was true, then you could calculate and predict the size of social group based on brain mass. Smaller brain, smaller social group, bigger brain, bigger social group.

When Dunbar applied this to the size of an average human brain, he came up with the number 150 and he found that this was validated by everything from the average size of modern hunter-gatherer tribes to military groups going right back to Roman times.

Of course, in reality the number is a bit of a range depending on psychological preferences, but the average is still useful when dealing with groups. Have you ever been at a wedding party that was over 200 people? It’s a wonderful celebration but can seem a bit more like a conference or festival! It doesn’t feel personal anymore.

Dunbar didn’t rest on his laurels. He kept exploring and found a series of numbers starting at 5 and rising by a rough ‘rule of 3,’ to tell us even more about how relationships scale:

  • 5 = Close Support Group – Best friends and often family

  • 15 = Close Friends The people you can turn to for sympathy and people you’d confide in about most things

  • 45 to 50 = Friends People you know well and would invite to a party. You get on well but don’t see them often enough to confide in them lots

  • 150 to 200 = Casual Friends You might invite them to a big party

  • 500 = Acquaintances You know them but not well

  • 1500 = Vague acquaintances You could put a name to their face when you see them

All of these groups can be fluid, they are not static groups of people, but the numbers are relatively stable. 1500 (or thereabouts) is limit, we just can’t keep hold of more relationships than that.

What does all that mean for your business?

You can apply these same numbers as cultural tipping points in an organisation because the degree of connection people will experience in the team will be similar. Our founders, Carla and Imogen, actually did a talk about these kinds of cultural tipping points for ‘The Agency Collective’ a little while ago and you can find the video of that here:

We also have a longer white-paper which will tell you more about each stage, what a typical company culture feels like at each stage and the kind of work you can usefully do to not only do OK in the moment, but to help you thrive long-term.

So you can walk away from this blog with something useful straight away though, here is a very brief version. Of course the numbers are not precise, but guided by Dunbar:

5 = Founding Team – Really helps to be clear and intentional about your culture to create a positive early foundation

15 = Growing Team – Distil and bottle up your brilliant culture now before it becomes too diluted

45 to 50 = Now We’re in Business – Often when people start thinking about it. You’ll need to dig deeper to find the real heart of it but this is when your culture can help you all pull together even as scale and specialisms might be sending you off in different directions

150 to 200 = Not ‘Small’ Anymore – This is when a lack of clear values and culture can become really painful, and if you have it, it may need refreshing as it needs to be broad enough to include sub-groups but not so vague it is meaningless

500 = Established Business – This is a whole other game and you will now need different ways of creating cultural coherence and an aligned sense of priorities, not just in what you are doing (strategy) but in how you do it (culture)

1500 = Big Business – At this scale you have to not only be bigger, but be seeking to achieve something bigger, for people to feel like they are part of something with purpose. Whatever else you have, you need one big purpose to galvanise your efforts and bring people together

Just like the Dunbar research suggests, human nature makes smaller groups easier to gel, but as soon as you become more than 1 person, you have a culture. The winners we see right now, are those that realise the important role a vibrant culture is playing to help teams work at their best.

Download our white-paper to deepen your thinking, or email for a copy. Stay in touch if you want to hear more as we develop some ‘DIY’ resources for cultivating your culture and give us a shout if you want some help working out what is right for you and your fantastic team.

By Francis Briers, Client Lead

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