Nine is Devine

Imagine for a second, your best team experience. Think of an achievement in sports, theater, school, volunteering, travel, etc.

What was the team experience? How many people do you recall being involved in the group? When I do this exercise in a consulting engagement most people say their memory involves 5 to 7 other individuals. Nothing scientific, just anecdotal evidence.

I am more convinced that nine individuals on a board or committee is the ideal size. Here is my rationale. Studies have shown that groups of ten and over trend towards parliamentary communication patterns. There is less of a collaborative conversation and more often the speaker addresses the Chair (or leader) instead of the entire group. Individuals feel less accountable and are more willing to miss meetings because they are convinced that their point of view will be represented by another member of the board. The dynamics of discussions take on a different chemistry as group size changes. I am not saying the Supreme Court gets it right every time but it is interesting to me that there are nine justices. The other trait boards over nine tend to exhibit is to start adding as many major donors as they can to the board. Major donors clearly have passion and the talent to invest significant funds into a cause. That does not immediately make them great decision makers. I encourage groups to focus on identifying a committed group of nine individuals who represent diverse points of view and are willing to be accountable for the decisions they make. You can always expand but it takes years to contract for most organizations.

As a former firefighter and EMT, I took an Incident Command class as a prerequisite course. One of the skills you learned was to be very clear about who you were assigning a specific task. If you were dealing with bystanders then you would either refer to them by name or acknowledge them by saying, ‘you in the red shirt, I need you to to call 911, now.’ Make the same statement without making eye contact and assigning responsibility to a crowd of on-lookers and your chances of success are much diminished.

What has been your most effective group sizes when it comes to making decisions in a team setting? In reality, does your preferred group size meet reality? Are your boards and committees larger or smaller than your preference?

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