Does this mean we can never have a business unit bigger than five or an organization larger than 150? Of course not. It’s not the absolute size of a group that matters, it’s about how we organize individuals and the communication links among them.
For instance, if you have a 25-person engineering team, you can split them into pods of five. Communication across pods happens among the five leaders of each pod, who then share relevant information back with their respective groups. This structure creates just 10 communication links within each of the sub-teams and roughly 15 links for members of the leadership team to manage, compared to 300 links in a 25-person team!
This structure is called a multi-team system, and it’s been very successful across a wide range of organization types.
Much of my research on teamwork and multi-team systems has been funded by the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation. Even though military operations and large collaborative science efforts are very different tasks, the multi-team system structure works well in both contexts. It allows for a super-team with large size and scope, and thus extensive expertise, while at the same time limiting the number of communication links that have to be managed.