Dunbar’s People…

I had my first ever experience of Budapest this week. I was invited to speak at a Conference on R&D productivity. This was a meeting I have attended for the last two years, have thoroughly enjoyed and have always left with more ideas (and business cards) than when I arrived.

Budapest was full of amazing contrasts. Stunning buildings and amazing bridges in the center. Concrete everywhere else. Without exception, everyone I met was happy and helpful and local scientists at the conference were impressive and insightful. It was well worth the trip.

I was first on the agenda…but on day two. This is always engaging. I spend the first day looking for themes, messages or ideas to mention in my talk. I ask questions and listen intently. I look for slides I don’t need. I seek out new slides to add. My goal is always to start day two with high energy. Wake everyone up after that long first day.

Day One involved much discussion about size. Big Pharma. Small biotech. Big is bad. Small is superior. Integration is outdated. Autonomy is all the rage. Open Innovation is powerful. Internal competencies are crucial. But what was the theme? What messages were consistent?


That was my takeaway. It was all about the people. No matter what ‘it’ was, it was always people who made it work. People who worked together to achieve it. People who had ideas and people who persevered to succeed.

Overnight I added slides referring to people. I invoked Dunbar’s number – 150. Robin Dunbar proposed that any one person can only have 150 friends. Anything more is simply too much for anyone to remember and keep track of. Application of Dunbar’s number to business suggests maximum size of an ‘aligned’ organisation is 150. Within a business unit of 150 it is possible to have a tangible sense of community based on regular and meaningful social contact. This in turn leads to a ‘moral contract’ between team members.

Everyone knows everyone else – knows what each person brings to the team – giving positive impact on idea generation and problem solving. Individuals will be there for their colleagues – team members are more likely to go that extra mile for each other. Such groups will always achieve and always deliver more. Smaller does indeed have a rationale to be better.

I also took opportunity to talk about the future. My future. One colleague asked me how I would rank ‘challenging work’ as a decision factor in what I do next. “Essential” was my immediate reply. But how would I prioritize ‘challenging work’ against joining an organisation that assigned ‘high value to collaboration’ was the response.

This corollary surprised me – not least since I had assumed my options were going to be challenging work vs. routine work – a simple choice. But the actual question was challenging work vs. collaboration focus. I played for time by suggesting that this wasn’t a valid decision to have to make. But that was the point. These types of questions are designed to provoke deeper reflection in anyone considering future roles and opportunities. No-one said it was supposed to be easy.

So this did make me think. And on reflection the answer was obvious – focus on collaboration. My logic was simple – that an environment where collaboration was a focus would be engaging, innovative, enjoyable and full of impact. Moreover, working in such an environment could only lead to the most challenging work imaginable. Conversely, having to cope with challenging work in an environment where collaboration was not expected – let alone a focus – would be unimaginable.




About Steve Street

I have worked in R&D within the Pharmaceutical industry for over 30 years. Up until April 2012 all of my career had been with one company, but that has now changed. I left that company and took up a new role on May 1, 2012 - still very much within the Pharmaceutical industry and again based in the UK. I have been blogging every week now for over 10 years but only on an external site since January 2012. Email updates of the blogs can be requested using the ‘follow’ option within Wordpress. The blogs are only ever my personal view of what I see, think and feel. I am delighted if you agree and find value; happy if you disagree with my views and overjoyed if you feel motivated to comment. Most of all I am simply grateful that you read. Cheers Steve
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2 Responses to Dunbar’s People…

  1. Steve,

    If an organization has poor quality people, however, collaboration becomes the most challenging aspect of the position. Trying to collaborate with selfish, insecure misanthropes driven by individual accolades at the expense of the success of the organization is indeed quite challenging. Organizations that select for such colleagues and set up a system to encourage and reward this type of behavior create an environment that makes collaboration challenging and increases the degree of difficulty of any scientific problem. Even accomplishing trivial tasks in such an environment is a monumental achievement. High quality, collaborative people in such a place either leave quickly, or adopt the worst behaviors of their competitors to survive.

    Similarly, an organization that has different departments with different, contradictory deliverables makes collaboration the major obstacle. One group can be rated as “outstanding” by meeting budget projections (their main goal); this was accomplished by denying service to another group (thus ensuring their failure). This conflict can even be elevated to a virtue by calling it “creative tension.”

    I think this is why smaller is so much better. Everyone has to count on everyone else, for failure in one part is felt by all. It’s harder to advance at the expense of anyone else; the best way to succeed is by making the enterprise successful. In a larger organization, the easiest way to personally advance one’s career is by eliminating one’s competition and grabbing a bigger piece of the pie. Thus collaboration becomes harder. When the pie is actively shrinking, these behaviors become even more acute and damaging.


    • Steve Street says:


      I am with you. My sense is that a small group (i.e. 150 or less), quality colleagues but with an explicit ethos of collaboration would be an amazing place to be…



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