The Tyranny of the Linear
“‘We are not points on a line; rather we are the centres of circles’ ” — John Berger
Reading John Berger’s late work ‘Confabulations,’ I came across this sentence – ‘We are not points on a line; rather we are centres of circles’. The thought reverberated with me as I reflected on how many linear timelines, project plans, forecasts and ‘roll outs’ I had already grappled with this year. Why are we so addicted to linear rather than circular ways of perceiving? The truth of Berger’s statement (I almost put ‘line’..) put me in mind of Robin Dunbar’s graph of human relationship.
The Dunbar Graph shows how the intensity and possible extent of our human bonds radiates out in the same way, like a stone thrown into a pond. Constrained as we are by the size of our brains, the number of possible relationships we can have at any given time has remained constant over millennia, despite our pretensions to progress. At the most intense inner ring, the limit is five. Here we are so closely connected with each other that we know what each is thinking, without the need to verbalise. The next circle of 15 (and this includes the previous 5) is where we spend 60% of our time. Then, once out at 50, we start to need layers and some relational structure. At the edge of each of these circles, there’s a need to organise and to lead differently. Then we reach 150, the so-called Dunbar number, our cognitive limit. Beyond this circle, our brains are simply not big enough to relate at a personal level. Out there, at that scale, leadership quickly becomes logistics, abstract, lonely: lines and arrows, charts and chalk. But to conceive of organisations like fractals rather than pyramids might make life more human for those within? Here the circles of your relationship will connect up with mine through shared purpose and so on and so on, thereby leveraging the circular resources of our humanity, rather than simply human resources.