John Langhorne/Tree Full of Owls

I am intrigued by a number.

Last week, I was traveling to St. Louis for a book talk and a friend there sent directions.  With the thank you note, I mentioned how amazing it is that you can get anywhere with fewer than seven turns, or that you can reach anyone in the world (who can be reached) by going through seven or fewer people or that organizations seems to function better when they have fewer than seven layers, or that the optimal number of direct reports seems to be about seven or that groups with fewer than seven seem to perform better or that seven or fewer bullets in a memo increases the level of comprehension  or…

So, is there a serious point somewhere? Perhaps.

We seem to be living in a world of information overload, and it is increasing exponentially. The March 7 cover story in Newsweek was “Brain Freeze: How the deluge of information paralyzes our ability to make good decisions.” This is complicated by the fact that many people I know have never seen an idea they don’t want to make more complex.

We all know there is enormous noise in communication, both in transmission and reception. How many problems result from miscommunication of some sort? Those of us who understand this always look for the miscommunication.

Experimental psychology has a story to tell here. In 1956 George Miller published one of the most-cited articles in the psychology literature: “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information.” In the article, he spoke not of a number but a range: 7 ± 2.  He suggested that people store and retrieve related bundles of information in “chunks,” and the maximum size of these chunks is 7 ± 2.
He posited this is the size of our working memory. Some say this started the cognitive revolution; goodbye to stimulus-response.

People who are highly effective communicators seem to practice the KISS principle, Keep It Short and Simple, another way of saying they are great at chunking. People are capable of understanding and communicating enormous complexity if they can organize it simply.

I have shared this idea with many people.  But many focus only on the seven, as if this is the “magic bullet” of communications.  Actually it’s the range that’s important and the idea that fewer is better.

Naturally, the research literature is complex, but for those of us who want to think and communicate better let me make two points:

1.    It is a maximum range
2.    Fewer is better

And primes seem to be more potent. Primes are numbers only evenly divisible by themselves and one (and well known to be magical). The first few are 2, 3, 5 and 7.

By the way, while you are working on this, don’t forget that the emotional tone of a communication drives how it will be received even more than the organization. That’s why active listening is so effective: it minimizes our accidental capacity to tag the communication with the wrong emotional load (husbands take note).

I believe it was Mark Twain who said, “Better to sit quietly and appear a fool than open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.”

Most of you probably won’t choose to read Mr. Miller’s article. It’s pretty dense with data, but the last paragraph is terrific:

“And finally, what about the magical number seven? What about the seven wonders of the world, the seven seas, the seven deadly sins, the seven daughters of Atlas in the Pleiades, the seven ages of man, the seven levels of hell, the seven primary colors, the seven notes of the musical scale, and the seven days of the week? What about the seven-point rating scale, the seven… For the present I propose to withhold judgment. Perhaps there is something deep and profound behind all these sevens, something just calling out for us to discover it.”

John Langhorne is with Langhorne Associates. He can be reached at www.langhorneassociates.com. His new book, Beyond Luck: Practical Steps to Navigate the Path from Manager to Leader, is available at www.beyondluck.net.