Building the ‘Dunbar Multiplier’

5 principles to 10X how many stable relationships you can handle.

When considering humanity’s biological history, our ability to communicate digitally only just arrived. As such, our naturally-acquired mental talents are severely limited at meeting today’s demands and reaching our full potential.

The concept of a “cognitive limit” regarding relationships, was made famous in the 90’s by Robin Dunbar, a renowned British anthropologist. He claims a person can maintain about 150 stable relationships at a time, the limit being “a direct function of relative neocortex size.” In other words, we are biologically limited to handle a few hundred relationships at most — a concept known as “Dunbar’s number”.

This idea has had profound influence on our perspective at Notion. In the modern world, nobody can meet their full potential under this limitation.

According to Dunbar, our relationship capabilities resulted from humanity’s tribal roots. Our capacity may have been sufficient when people remained mostly inside the social confines of a small tribe. Today, however, we interact with thousands of people throughout our lives. Our mental machinery is just not wired to juggle relationships at scale.

While our current technology provides the means for us to have lots of interactions, it falls short at deriving their meaning. It would take a millennia to naturally catch up to the new social demands and possibilities created by digital communications. No thanks. We can overcome these limitations and meet our full potential now by using technology to extend what the neocortex does for us naturally.

By putting people at the center of Notion, we are building a sort of “Dunbar Multiplier” to unlock thousands of your meaningful relationships. Five key principles are guiding our development approach:

1. Data-driven Intelligence

This can’t just be another list of names. To be effective, the tool has to be smart. It should understand and surface relationship nuances like asymmetrical influence and relative connection strength. It should deliver insights from our interactions over time including longevity, frequency, recency, and responsiveness. It should map the origin of our connections and identify new ones we want to make and how best to connect.

To power Notion, we are developing the world’s deepest domain-specific intelligence for relationship science directly on top of your communications.

2. Do Less Work

Everyone is already too busy. We all suffer from communication overload. If the tool requires heavy input or maintenance, it will fail. Luckily, our current behavior already generates more than enough of a digital footprint to create a transformative relationship technology. We believe in an approach that solves communications overload while, at the same time, unlocking the meaning of our relationships.

This is why we started with email at Notion. On top of email, we can deliver useful insights and tools for the vast majority of your professional relationships without requiring you to manually input any data at all.

3. Start Low in the Stack

I am personally passionate about the universe of customer relationship management (CRM). However, CRMs and other similar “_RM” software, such as, DRM (donor), VRM (vendor), and so on are too “high in the stack” to empower us individually.

These “_RM” systems are purpose-built for a specific type of activity. In the case of CRM it is sales and account management. You may know someone for years before you try to sell something to them, if you ever do. However, that person could be one of your most important relationships. Traditional relationship software is limited in scope, restricted to people in a few roles, and suffers from a dataset that is both partial and cumbersome.

If not in CRM, where can this happen? I don’t believe there is room for a third application in people’s lives. We need systems like CRMs to effectively execute business operations. We need communications tools like email and Slack to send messages. Without room for a middle application to handle our many relationships, one of these things needs to take on more.

Notion sees email as the natural place for us to get insights about our relationships. Your data is already there. An intelligent email that understands your relationships can solve communication overload and even improve how we communicate with each other. Better communication leads to stronger relationships.

4. Deliver More Context

Recall is one of the hardest challenges in trying to scale up our relationships. I can look at a name and face of someone I know I have met but still come up blank. Our brains work on making connections. The more context we can surface, the easier it is for us to connect the dots and recall meaning.

When you look at a person in Notion, you see when you met, who introduced you, the first message you exchanged, your most recent message together, who you know in common, and more. All of these data points build context for a more complete picture of your relationship and history with that person. I have a lot of “Oh yeah!” moments while exploring my own relationships in Notion.

5. Be Extensible

A data-driven approach to building relationship insights on top of communications activity can take us really far. However, we still need the ability to add information and supplement it. We should be able to identify relationships we want to grow and easily integrate with other systems we use. We should also be able to build trust relationships with other people so we can share and maximize our extended networks together.

Expect more on that not-a-subtle hint on what’s next for Notion a bit later.

So, is email the path to a better LinkedIn?

You figured us out, Noah.

At Notion, we surface insights about your relationships directly from your communication activity. What’s produced is an accurate representation of your entire network. Rather than depending on manual connection requests, your network is built by and represents real and useful data. Combining an understanding that is years-in-the-making with lightweight organizational tools, lets you get proactive at improving your communication behaviors with others and your resulting relationships.

Perhaps we can make a tool that delivers useful data-driven insights about your relationships instead of a list of over 500 meaningless connections with endorsements for everything under-the-sun from people you don’t really know. Such a tool would also play more nicely with others. Rather than generating more and more spam from recruiters, we see a brighter future focused on solving communication overload and expanding the potential of our relationships.

Alas, it’s still very much early days for us here at Notion. We are just happy to be a handful of crazy people feverishly designing, coding and typing away on a big idea. I do love my job!