Whenever there’s a task to be done or governance to be exercised, we tend to organize for it in threes. A single power center is unworkable, as it can easily lead to dictatorship. Two is not so good either, as a disagreement can lead to indefinite and unrefereed deadlock. Three gives us “checks and balances,” as all of us were taught in school.  

It’s not just the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches of the US government. Companies developing new products seek balance among the engineering, manufacturing, and marketing departments. Economic development rests on the “triple helix” interaction of the government, academic, and industrial sectors. Corporate governance depends on the triangle of shareholders, boards of directors, and managers.  

Three seems to be a magic number! 

Yet, things go wrong. Republicans in Congress fight Democratic President Obama tooth and nail, and with one seat vacant on the Supreme Court, the justices are split pretty much along party lines. Democrats (and a few Republican devotees of the Constitution) want the seat filled now. The opposition is blocking an appointment until after the Presidential election. 

Speed-to-market, essential for success in tech industries, gets torpedoed by the number 3. Marketing guys think engineers only want to make cool products that other engineers will appreciate but that no one will buy. Engineers are sure the marketers cannot possibly understand the product. Both doubt that manufacturing can actually make the thing. Except when the CEO is a brilliant, obnoxious micro-manager like Steve Jobs, the conflict is unlikely to find a capable arbitrator. 

To react effectively to each other’s initiatives, and to be effective partners in economic development, the triple helix elements - government, academe, and industry - need to be at least semi-autonomous. Yet in America we see universities becoming more dominated by business interests even as governments cut the academic budgets. Business lobbyists buy and sell congressmen. In other countries, universities are dominated by the government’s education ministry, and the great majority of companies may be SEOs, state-owned enterprises. All power imbalances reflecting the breakdown of the number 3. 

Corporate scandals like Enron’s happen when the CEO appoints zombie yes-men to the boards, states compete to issue the most management-friendly corporate charters, shareholder capital takes flight at the merest hiccup in quarterly returns, and boards (which are supposed to represent the shareholders) structure CEO incentives in the most perverse and stupid ways. 

We organize for project management and for enterprise (and national) governance based on the theory that tripartite structures are optimal.Yet as the above paragraphs show, three is not perfect. There are two ways checks and balances may fail. One of the three entities can dominate the other two, or two can gang up against the third. The current Supreme Court situation suggests a third mode of breakdown, namely, that one or both of the executive and legislative branches so abuse their checks-and-balances power, that the third entity (the Court) is paralyzed. 

I’m not looking for specific solutions for current national governments or for particular corporations. Instead, I seek your opinions on the over-arching theoretical question: Is three the optimal number for effective governance? Should it be more, or less, or is it the wrong question altogether? 

I should add that neither am I inviting screeds from fans of dictatorship, either of the left or of the right. Though if someone can make a good case for monarchy*… 
 * No, not the British monarchy, we fought a war to escape that. I’m talking about the American monarchy, the only one I know of anyway. Rumor has it that the heir to the Hawai’ian throne is hiding out somewhere on the big island…