The rule of three exists across many disciplines and throughout history. Yet the rule of three does not seem to have any firm intellectual grounding.

In consulting, you are taught to organize ideas into three buckets. You can see this when a former consultant inevitably says “there are three things I want you to remember” when they are giving a presentations.

While many people have tried to uncover this mystery to see if there was a logical starting point for this rule, no one seems to have a good argument.

My best explanation for the rule of three is that three is the least number of items needed to make a pattern and the best evidence seems to come from our natural world, where evidence of groups of three seems to exist in all domains:

  • Stories: Three Little Pigs
  • History: “Life, Liberty & the Pursuit of Happiness”
  • Physics: Newton’s Three Laws
  • Writing: Three-Act Structure
  • Slogans: Snap! Crackle! Pop!
  • Photography: Rule of Thirds
  • Consultants: Three Key Things

The Rule Of Three Can Simplify Your Thinking

Breaking things down into three groups is a great forcing mechanism to simplify your thinking. If you have a list of 35 initiatives to work on, it might be helpful to identify the types of initiatives you have proposed. It’s easier to communicate that you have several initiatives focused on team culture, team processes and team compensation than to list out all 35 projects. Similarly, if you are trying to define a problem, you might start to identify problems that are related. If you can define three groups of issues, you can then focus your efforts to solving those specific issues rather than trying to solve a problem that is too big.

Three blocks

Humans Are Pattern Recognition Machines So Beware False Positives & Negatives

Our world is incredibly complex. Without identifying patterns, we would have a hard time communicating what we are seeing. However since we are wired to see patterns, this means we can potentially make a mistake.
The are two kinds of mistakes: false positives and false negatives. Here are a couple of examples:

  • False positive: Your company has its best month in terms of revenue in the history of the company. You take this as a sign that the company is overall healthy, while dismissing the fact that the company’s underlying profitability has been decreasing for the last 24 months.
  • False negative: Lebron James, one of the best basketball players in the world, has a bad game. As the coach, you take this performance to mean that he is not one of the best players on your team and decide not to play him for the remaining games.
seeing patterns where there are no patterns

The human tendency to see patterns within unrelated things is called Apophenia and describes our tendency to hear secret messages in music, see images in clouds and see Jesus’ image in Toast.

It also results in people making conclusions from data that may really be false positives or false negatives. Being aware of this tendency can help you avoid making false conclusions or fitting data into the story you want to tell.

How to use the rule of three in a business setting

The Rule of Three can also be used to make a message more memorable through repetition. Neuroscientist and persuasion researcher Carmen Simon shares her perspective on the challenge of persuading business audiences:It is difficult for our audiences to remember many facts, unless we repeat them regularly – and repetition is often hard in business contexts Yet repetion can still be effective in the right context. One of the most simple tools of communicating a message among consultants is the often shared three step approach:

  1. Tell them what you will tell them
  2. Tell them
  3. Tell them what you told them

By repeating your message, you can make it much more memorable and likely that they will start to see the patterns you want them to see.

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