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  • Paul Laver

4 is the Magic Number

Paul Laver

Co-founder @ OMTM

Dear World,

A couple of months ago, before the proverbial Covid-19 had truly hit the global fan, I spent a Saturday at a 7-hour lecture on Neuroscience Learning, Performance and Creativity. It was run by the Weekend University and presented by Professor Vincent Walsh, a leading neuroscientist at UCL. To keep the audience glued for 7 hours was a herculean task but said Prof was more than up to the task.

One of the many themes he covered on the day, was the power of 4 – the idea that human beings work best in teams of this number when it comes to performance delivery. Any more and they become socially un-wieldy, someone gets left out, people get in the way, folk over-act or hideaway. Indeed, teams bigger than 4 tend to be less efficient, less creative and generally perform less well.

This got me thinking (Carrie Bradshaw style) back over my 25 years of global insight / strategy work to the endless groups I’ve conducted or witnessed around the world. And yes, some of these have been incredibly productive, but quite a few definitely could have been more useful. I thought back to scenarios which led to that killer thought, that pivot or paradigm shift, the kind of thing you could run up a flag pole and you know what, more often than not, they came from a one-to-one or a small team of no more than 4, working together in harmony.

Why would this be the case? Well let’s put our thinking caps on for a minute; say a group is a couple hours long, with 8 or more people present. The moderator might spend the first 20 mins explaining the legals, getting the team to say ‘hi’, or breaking the ice in a creative way. Another half an hour later and you’re finally getting into the nitty-gritty, but you've got 80 mins remaining of the session. The moderator will have to speak for about 1/4 of this time (an underestimate for some moderators out there). The hairy bloke in the corner likes the sound of his own voice so he speaks a little more than the others, so we’re down to 49 mins between 7 decent respondents. That’s 7 mins each…

Groups are misused and misapplied; to get rich qualitative data, we need time and space. With sessions of 4 or less, you’d be surprised how deep you can suddenly go in these smaller, more intimate huddles. No one can hide; the noisy hairy bloke is quietened by his much-diminished audience, the socially anxious person feels less intimidated to contribute. Speaking and listening in quarters is much easier to manage and feels much more tangible, than for a larger or uneven numbered group.

So, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Sitting a group of people in a room and having a sensitive, open conversation with them can be incredibly powerful - just make them smaller so they can do what they are intended to.

And by the way, the same applies (even more so) for web-enabled sessions!

I will leave you with the most visceral point made by the Prof on that day - SAS and Navy Seals espouse the power of four, since noticing it was in teams of this size that fewer body bags came home (because fewer mistakes were made) … good enough for those guys, good enough for us I reckon.

Over + out,

P x

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