Why 7-15-60 is the Winning Combination of Every Group that Wants Lasting Influence

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Civic associations represent the backbone of a vibrant democracy. They have fueled American Exceptionalism since the very beginning of our country. But don’t take my word. Read what one of history’s most quoted experts had to say on this very subject.

“Among democratic nations, on the contrary, all the citizens are independent and feeble; they can do hardly anything by themselves, and none of them can oblige his fellow men to lend him their assistance. They all, therefore, become powerless if they do not learn voluntarily to help one another. …if they never acquired the habit of forming associations in ordinary life, civilization itself would be endangered.”

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations… The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools… Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.”

These words come from Alexis de Tocqueville in his seminal work Democracy in America. Published in two volumes (1835 and 1840 respectively), the work presents an early and objective description of the meaning of American Exceptionalism. He devotes an entire section to the critical role civic associations play. To de Tocqueville, they provide a powerful barrier that keeps oppressive government at bay. Here’s what he says:

“The task of the governing power will therefore perpetually increase, and its very efforts will extend it every day. The more it stands in the place of associations, the more will individuals, losing the notion of combining together, require its assistance… The morals and the intelligence of a democratic people would be as much endangered as its business and manufactures if the government ever wholly usurped the place of private companies.”

“No sooner does a government attempt to go beyond its political sphere and to enter upon this new track than it exercises, even unintentionally, an insupportable tyranny; for a government can only dictate strict rules, the opinions which it favors are rigidly enforced, and it is never easy to discriminate between its advice and its commands… Governments, therefore, should not be the only active powers; associations ought, in democratic nations, to stand in lieu of those powerful private individuals whom the equality of conditions has swept away.”

Moreover, de Tocqueville sees civic associations as essential to propel society beyond its current position. He says, “In democratic countries the science of association is the mother of science; the progress of all the rest depends upon the progress it has made. Among the laws that rule human societies there is one which seems to be more precise and clear than all others. If men are to remain civilized or to become so, the art of associating together must grow and improve in the same ratio in which the equality of conditions is increased.”

Here’s what the amateur psychologist in me thinks he knows about groups (discovered in the course of trying to figure out the best dynamic marketing strategy for on-line platforms):

You must remember these three numbers: 7 – 15 – 60. These numbers represent the 3 key subgroups of an “ideal” close-knit group or, to use de Tocqueville’s term, a “civic association.” Shepherding the successful vibrancy of these three subgroups will help insure your organization will experience sustainable – and satisfying – growth.

Subgroup #1 – The Core Group: In order for a group to reach a critical mass of initial sustainability, it requires roughly (but not much more and not much less) 7 highly engaged people. These (primarily) self-motivated folks come up with most of the exciting ideas that attract members to the organization and do most of the work to implement those ideas. Think of this Core Group as the “executive committee” of the organization (although, technically, it doesn’t have to be the official executive committee).

Why 7? According to Miller’s Law, on average, a person can only hold seven distinct thoughts at once in working memory. (George Miller, a Princeton psychologist, is most famous for his 1956 paper “The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information,” published in Psychological Review. 63 (2): 81–97.) In practical terms, a decision-making body requires an odd number of people, so seven fits the bill there, too. Finally, in organizational terms, individuals need to assume specific roles. An executive committee, for example, often includes the four standard officers (President, Vice-President, Secretary, and Treasurer) plus additional specialists (e.g., marketing, research, operations) to fill the complement of seven.

Subgroup #2 – The Inner Ring: Life happens and it’s very rare (due to a number of good and natural reasons) for individuals to stay within the Core Group for long periods. As a result, a group needs an able “bench” to achieve long-term sustainability. This bench should be at least 8 people – one for each of the core group plus an extra (for good luck?). Between the Core Group and the Inner Ring (let’s call them the “Leadership Group”) there are 15 members.

Unlike the Core Group, which is engaged on a relatively constant basis, those in the Inner Ring are engaged on an ad hoc basis. This means they are, as individuals, usually involved in a single event or single activity. The purpose is to keep them interested and aware of the needs of the organization, so they can develop an appreciation for its history, its culture, and the needs of its members. When the time comes, they’ll then be ready to step up into the Core Group. Think of the Inner Ring as the Board of Directors of an organization.

Subgroup #3 – The Outer Ring: This represents the remaining members of the organization. This should be roughly three times the number of people in the Leadership Group (i.e., 45), meaning the total number of people in the group is 60. Why is there an upper limit? Close-knit groups are, in the sense that we are defining them here, “associations.” Associations work best when there is at least one (preferable more than one but not too many) shared commonalities. (If there are too many shared commonalities, the association becomes a cult. Cults have different social objectives than associations).

Why 60? OK, this one’s a little more subjective, but it’s based on Dunbar’s Number, which suggests that, given the size of the human brain, we can only maintain 150 stable relationships. This is based on the work by Robin Dunbar, an Oxford anthropologist who began his research on primate and follow-up with studying Christmas card lists. Still, 60 is but a fraction of 150. My thinking here is this: You don’t want all your friends to be in only one group (which is another definition of a cult). You’re a better person if you’re diversified. A cap of 60 in any one group means you can belong to two groups and still have enough left over for family and a few really close friends.

By embracing the 7-15-60 metric of group dynamics, you’ll be able to maintain a thriving organization. Your association will have a dynamic core that energetically drives the group to new heights. You’ll have a stable and reliable bench team to step in for core members who drop out or whose terms expire. Finally, your group will be small enough where “everyone will know your name.”

And with that, you can say “Cheers!” to your success.

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