Anytime we create a new board or committee, we inevitably skew toward using an odd number. And there's good precedent for why we do this: we need an odd number to break a tie. There's a reason, for example, why the U.S. Supreme Court has nine members. It's so that they can arrive at a simple majority in a vote.
But it turns out that having an odd number can create a dynamic that we need to be aware of as it can be extremely dangerous if you're not careful. You may have unwittingly handed control of your company to a joker.
Let me explain what I mean.
Let's say that we are forming a new board for a joint-venture we're forming between two companies: the Blue company and the Red company. In forming the board, each company with have equal representation: three members each. But there will also be a seventh member, a neutral party who will serve as the tie breaker. We have to be able to vote, so we need an odd number, right?
What happens is that both sides want to nominate someone into this role that they can control and influence, perhaps not too bright, in other words, someone who will break a tie in their favor.
That's the joker.
Just look at any recent Supreme Court decision and see how the decision often comes down to a single centrist judge's vote: they have the ability to sway the simple majority decision of the entire court.
But think about this dynamic for a minute. If there is a tie - where the three Blue members vote one way and the three Red members vote another- then the joker gets to decide the direction of the business. Did you really mean to hand over that kind of power to this person? They have all the power!
I want to encourage you to adapt a different way of thinking about this. Rather than put an odd number of people on the board, put the right amount of people. And you can do that by shifting away from worrying about creating majority decisions and by thinking about reaching consensus instead.
Reaching consensus doesn't mean that everyone agrees on something. Rather, it's that everyone on the board feels like they have a chance to voice their opinion; that they have been heard. The goal is to reach a compromise that everyone can at least live with and support - rather than just settle on a simple majority vote along party lines. By approaching decision-making this way, you can create complete alignment and buy-in among board or team members- while also avoiding letting some joker make the final decision for you.
So think about the kinds of boards you serve on or that are in place in your company and ask yourself, who is the joker who is really running this place?