Following the Herd.
Sometimes what seems like a good idea at the time can seem pretty foolish later on.
You probably know that a group of quails is called a covey. And that a group of lions is a pride. But do you know what they call a group of toads?
This whole “every species has to have its own group name” is completely out of control. Quite frankly I could care less that a group of zebras is a dazzle, that jellyfish hang out in smacks, or that you are surrounded by a rhumba of rattlesnakes.
Do you know anyone who has ever referred to a shrewdness of apes with a straight face? Or ever written the words “an obstinacy of buffalo” in a sentence?
It’s stupid. And what’s even more ludicrous is that some species aren’t content to have just one ridiculous name. Bats come in colonies, clouds and cauldrons. Ducks are a brace, a paddling or a team. And for Hippos, you can choose from crash, bloat, herd, pod or school.
What’s worse, these group names aren’t interchangeable. They are based on quantity, or age, or activity, or some other random characteristic.
For example: 11 cows is a kine. Add one more and voila! It’s a flink.
Look up in the sky. It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a skein! But once that skein of geese land, they are now a gaggle or a flock.
Are you rounding up pigs? Well if they are young pigs you’re talking about a drift or a drove. If they are older, you’ve got a sounder, a litter or a team. And if you’ve got pigs of all ages mixed together, I don’t know what the hell you have.
This is a perfect example of a non-scalable culture. Having a different group name for each animal may have seemed like a good idea at one point . . .maybe 4350 years ago, when every known species of animal could fit on a single ark.
But today we’ve identified a million species of insects, over 10,000 reptiles, and more than 6,000 mammals. There’s no way they’re all getting their own group names, and it would be stupid to try.
That’s how non-scalable cultures work: something that makes sense at small scale becomes ridiculous as it grows, usually because the effort required scales at the same rate. It’s why your internet provider doesn’t send you handwritten notes, and why McDonald’s doesn’t make a new patty every time someone orders a burger.
But it’s an easy trap to fall into when you’re starting a company or launching a new product. Often, you’re so focused on building an MVP or growing a user base that you don’t pause to think whether the way you’re doing things now will make sense at 10x (or 100x). But that’s what you have to do, or you’re already doomed.
Even those bizarre collective nouns have an origin that’s mostly pointless. Maybe you’ve never heard of The Egerton Manuscript or The Boke of St. Albans, but if you insist on calling a bunch of foxes a skulk, you’re still following the rules they set out. Both books were written by and for a handful of wealthy English hunters in the 15th century, and included lists of 100+ terms for groups of animals and people.
But even back then, hardly anybody actually used them. Mostly they were a way to sound smarter than the other guys. Some of the terms—especially human ones, like an “impatience of wives”—were more social commentary or inside jokes than anything.
So why do we keep using them? Social inertia. A lack of introspection. A desire to not look dumb. All things that keep non-scalable processes alive in the entrepreneurial world too.
So let’s just stop.
But as I’ve often told my direct reports, “Don’t come to me with problems. Come to me with solutions.”
So here’s my modest proposal.
Forget musterings, pledges and wisdoms (storks, wasps and wombats, respectively). Henceforth and hither-more there will be just four group names.
If it walks on the ground, it’s a herd.
If it flies through the air, it’s a flock.
If it swims in the water, it’s a school.
And if you’re not sure what to call it (penguins comes to mind), well then it’s simply a bunch.
Now isn’t that better?
Not only is it simpler, it’s fairer. All animals are equal. After all, why should pelicans, pheasants and kingfishers get their own group names (squadron, bouquet, and concentration), while most of the other 11,000 species have to settle for flock?
So let’s simplify our lives. No more animal group names. And if you can’t bring yourself to do it for me . . . do it for the animals. The whole bunch of them.
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Podcast Episode 72
October 25, 2022 • 38 min