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Challenges of scaling: the people dynamic


John Shinnick
Portfolio NED, Coach, Mentor, Adviser

· Growth,Workforce,Leader Interviews,Leadership
“People don’t resist change. They resist being changed” — Peter Senge

Peter was and remains, a leader in organisational development. He championed the idea of the ‘learning organisation’; the natural state for a scaling, growing, developing business where there is a constant and dynamic need to accept change. But this need to be a learning organisation transcends growth. With the pace of technological change and the dissemination of everything from knowledge to rumour, an MSB needs to be learning and adapting just to remain in a steady state.

“Numbers don’t make decisions, people do”

I was given this insight four decades ago and its relevance has only increased over time. The availability of data upon which to make decisions within MSBs has increased in volume and speed. Are we matching that with the structured emotional intelligence that will give the best opportunity for those decisions to stick and create change? Structured emotional intelligence: the recognition that a decision within a business will be perceived differently by every single person that it affects and the intelligence to find a collaborative solution that produces the optimum outcome.

Why should an MSB access structured emotional intelligence?

This perhaps highlights one of the issues identified within this report: MSB directors see development as a personal journey. What if it was seen as a collaborative undertaking where the leadership team or preferably the whole organisation developed together? Imagine an organisation where all of the people understand the direction of travel and where they fit into the plan.

And this is where, I think, MSBs lose out to smaller businesses: the concept of the Dunbar number. Robin Dunbar is a social anthropologist who researched the affect that group size has on collaboration. He found that the point at which a group dynamic fundamentally changes is somewhere around 150 people: think Roman legions, think medieval villages, but also think small agile companies with great cultures.

This MSB population of businesses with teams of 50 to 499 people moves out beyond that ideal collaborative, community size. It possibly goes out beyond where there is regular, EQ communication between the senior team - the directors - and the whole of the workforce. It moves towards the ‘them’ and ‘us’ that damages the ability to accept positive change.

I don’t think this has to be an inevitability.

What would accessing structured emotional intelligence mean to an MSB?

It comes back to challenging that view that MSB directors see development as a personal journey. Make it a group journey. Make it an organisational journey. Go behind the accessible and recognisable field of training and journey into effective group development. Put EQ, Emotional Intelligence, at the core of the change dynamic.

What would that give the organisation? Think of the times when you have seen the organisational challenges in a growing entity. Often, the challenges are around stretch and communication. The leaders feel too busy or consumed by doing the things in front of them. They miss out on the opportunities that collaboration and leverage can bring. “I will take on this part, this responsibility, myself because it has to be done effectively”. “the time taken to translate this for others and embed it with them, is better spent getting on with it”. “I don’t know whether they are ready or really understand”.

You achieve great collaboration when you know yourself and when you know others have that same alignment.

Three core elements of EQ that would serve an MSB team well: Self-awareness, Self-regulation, Empathy. Start with introducing it to the individual so that they can see how it improves their working existence, their ability to recognise that relying on others is a strength. Then introduce Group-awareness, Group-regulation, Group empathy and you have a powerful force.

Why might it not be happening?

When you get up past that Dunbar number, group relationships appear less important and then investing in group relationships can slip down the priority list. Combine that with a reducing but still prevalent cynicism on the power of softer skills and you have a lack of investment.

Let me leave you with this thought: the Dunbar number is not an absolute and derives from habitual group dynamics. Change the dynamic, introduce conscious emotional intelligence and I believe you can significantly increase the size of an effective group: of an effective corporate team.

Numbers don’t make decisions. Numbers don’t make great businesses. People do.

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