Is there an ideal board size?

One question I am often asked when I conduct workshops is whether there is an ideal number of members for a school board.  The short answer is “no, every school is different and must come to its own conclusion about what works best for its particular situation”.

However, this leads to a more important question: “what factors should determine the ideal size of OUR school board?”.

A useful starting point when considering this question is Brooks’ Law.  Originally arising from the software development industry, Brooks’ Law states “adding personnel to a late project makes it even later”.  According to Fred Brooks, who developed this idea in his 1975 book “The Mythical Man-Month”, when an incremental person is added to a project, it makes the project take more, not less time.  This could be paraphrased as “most people simply cannot effectively manage complex relationships”.

Although this is, of course, an over-simplification, it describes the counter-intuitive reality that adding more people does not always mean work gets done more quickly.  The reasoning behind this thinking is that as the number of people grows linearly, the complexity of communication increases exponentially.

Brooks' Law diagram

In the diagram above, it can be seen that increasing a board from three to four members adds just one extra person, but effectively doubles the number of lines of communication that must be managed.  Similarly, if we had a board with five members and doubled its number to ten, the lines of communication would increase by 450% from 10 to 45.

It is said that we (i.e. most people) are capable of having tight relationships with about five people, and slightly less intense relationships with an additional 15 or so.  We can relate this to the size of sporting teams which rarely have more than 15 members.

This suggests that small boards will usually be more effective than large boards because communication will probably be more direct and less prone to misunderstandings.

On the other hand, small boards can lead to burnout among members when there are too few people to handle the duties and obligations required.  This assumes, of course, that every board member is making an active contribution, as burnout can also arise when a larger board has several ‘chair warmers’.  Indeed, ‘chair warming’ can be a risk with larger boards because some members may assume they don’t have to work hard because there are so many other people around.  Thus, burnout can be a risk with both large and small boards.

There are other factors influencing the ideal size of a board for any particular school:

So, there is no universally ideal size for a school board.  Having said that, I have worked with boards that are clearly too small (three members) or too large (24 members) for effective operations.  In general boards with (say) 7 to 13 members seem to work fairly well depending on factors such as the experience and competence of the members, and the respect members show each other when attending meetings and between meetings.

This brings me to what is perhaps the most important factor when considering board effectiveness.  It is not the size of the board, which is just one, relatively minor factor.  It’s not even the respect with which members treat each other, essential though this is.

The key factor in enhancing board effectiveness is having a neutral, external person conduct regular comprehensive performance reviews of the board as a whole, identifying the relative areas of strength and shortcomings.  Regular (say, biennial) performance reviews enable the board to focus on intentional self-improvement and thus maximise its capacity to achieve its stated mission and vision.

Everything else is really just a footnote to this core purpose of the board – maximising capacity to achieve the stated mission and vision.

-Dr Stephen Codrington

Thank you to for the graphic used in this article. 

The Board’s fiduciary and non-fiduciary duties are explored in detail with reference to ‘Best Practice’ in our workshop OSG-S7 The Board’s Duties.

Learn more about our approach to board performance reviews, or to initiate a board performance review for your board, send an e-mail to [email protected].

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