What is the Ideal Committee Size?

TeamworkC-O-M-M-I-T-T-E-E, double “M,” double “T,” double “E,”–even the word itself seems to have superfluous elements. Nine letters for a word that seems like it could get away with five or six. yet, “comite” doesn’t sound right, and “komity,” doesn’t look right. Luckily there’s an authoritative source–the dictionary–to prescribe the spelling of committee.

There’s no authoritative source, however, which prescribes size of a committee. So we’re doing a study of our own. Boosterland needs your help to find the best committee sizes for booster clubs. We want to know when a committee was too small. When did a committee lack a diversity of perspectives or spread of skill sets? We also want to know when a committee was too big. When did cliques form within the group, or communication become too difficult? While your answers start streaming in, here’s my preliminary research.

Education experts recommend small groups

I started, strangely enough, with a note from my sister from a Richard Allington poster on ideal group size for 4th grade readers. “Group size does matter,” it reads. “Three students is most effective… Five students reduce effectiveness by 50%… Seven students reduce effectiveness to 0!” While we should always consider the needs of our inner child, this research probably doesn’t directly apply to adults.

I started looking for something a bit more age/task appropriate, and I came across a number of useful resources for building committees. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, for example, has tips about forming committees, from their size to their composition. Like many articles and reports I read for this blog post, it recommends five to nine members for a committee. Also like everything else I read, it doesn’t cite any kind of study. It merely relies on the intuitions of the bureaucrat who wrote it.

Bureaucrats recommend medium sized groups

The only “law” of committee size seems to be Parkinson’s Law:

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

Parkinson was a bureaucrat in the British Civil Service when the U.K. was letting go of it’s colonies. Despite less colonies, and less actual work to do, the amount of staff in the service kept growing, showing that groups tend to make extra work for themselves. His “law” has been cited by ministers and heads of state. Basically, he makes a good argument against having groups that are too large.

Innovators applaud large groups, but historians caution against them

However, big groups are good for brainstorming. A study from the Academy of Management found that large groups (up to 12 people) did the best job of brainstorming. However, in groups as large as 12, they recommend an electronic system of pitching ideas. That cuts apprehension and cross-talk.

Still others look at the problem historically. Which institutions are successful? How many people do they put on boards and committees? The Supreme Court, for example, has nine members. That seems to work pretty well, especially when a member or two have to recuse themselves for conflicts for interest. Also, odd numbered groups avoid ties in votes. Scienceblogs.com has an entire post in this historical vein, arguing that larger governing bodies in England eventually lost power, an indication that they did not rule effectively.

What about booster clubs specifically?

So here’s the recap. Three is the ideal groups size for 4th graders learning how to read. Five is the smallest recommended size for an adult committee. Seven and nine also seem to work. Twelve people can brainstorm well, especially with a digital interface. But what about booster club committees specifically? What’s the ideal number of people to lead the organization of an event or subcommittee?

There are many different factors to consider:

  • What skills does the committee need to have among its members?
  • Will it be big enough for senior leaders to groom a successor?
  • Does the group need to have a large social network at its disposal?
  • Is there enough wiggle room to reduce the risk, such as when a member drops out?
  • Is there too much wiggle room, making members feel unneeded?

What else have you found important in committees and booster club boards? We’d love to hear from you about past experiences, as well as committees you’re forming for future projects.

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