Neuromanagement: The Rule of Three?

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Trivia question: Why were local phone numbers originally seven digits long? The answer is that in the early days of local phone service, researchers found that seven digit numbers were about as long as most people could remember without forgetting or making errors. (One oft-quoted study on the “seven” topic is The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information by George A. Miller.)

If it’s hard to remember more than seven digits, how many complex concepts can we process and/or keep track of? I don’t think that research has been conducted, but a New York Times interview with Cristóbal Conde, president and C.E.O. of SunGard, suggests one solution:

A boss once told me: “Cris, you’re a smart guy, but that doesn’t mean that people can absorb a list of 18 things to do. Focus on a handful of things.” Very constructive criticism, and the way I’ve translated that is, when I do reviews, everything is threes.

So, “Look, Charlie, these are the three things that are going well. These are the three things that are not going well.” Now, that’s very important because then people know that everybody’s going to get three positives and three things they should do differently. Then they don’t take it personally. I’ve found that to be an incredibly valuable tool. [Emphasis added. From New York Times Corner Office – Structure? The Flatter The Better.]

Now there may not be research to show that three is some kind of hard-wired limit like the average number of digits we can retain is, but Conde’s limit of three makes a lot of sense. When the number of things to focus on keeps growing, that focus will eventually be lost.

I think the Rule of Three can be applied not just to performance reviews but other business topics as well. How about the three things I absolutely must complete today? The top three products needing sales attention? The list could go on and on. Now there may be nothing magical about “3,” but one can’t argue that using the Rule of Three won’t simplify a complex focus and increase the probability of achieving those three objectives.

Do you have any simplification rules to manage your life or business activity? Do you let lists grow as long as needed, or do you have a cutoff number that helps you (or your employees) focus?

18 Comments
  1. Theresa says

    Interesting post, Roger. I advocate to all my clients that utilizing three part lists helps break information into usable pieces for your audience and lists can easily be reiterated throughout your speech to allow for greater retention. While three may seem an arbitrary number, in public speaking circles, the Rule of Three is well-known and often used. Obama often uses three part lists in his speeches regularly (somewhere I read in a speech he used a 3 part list every thirty seconds).

    In our organization, we try to limit lists to three (and certainly no greater than five). Our performance evaluations are similar to Conde’s described above. Only in brainstorming sessions do I recall ever letting a list grow as long as needed.

    1. Roger Dooley
      Twitter: rogerdooley
      says

      I’m glad to hear more support for the Rule of Three, Theresa. Thanks for stopping by!

      Roger

  2. Steve Bauer says

    Hey Roger,

    Your post is also supported by Carmine Gallo’s latest book on presenting like Steve Jobs. Steve breaks everything down into three easy components. It works.

    On a sidenote, could you configure the blog so that we can read full entries on RSS Readers? Right now, it’s set so I have to click over to the website to read your entries and it wastes time.

    Keep up the interesting work!

    Steve

  3. Richard Rezek says

    Hi Roger,

    I like the rule of three also. I want to give a little credit and plug to Connie Dieken – hope that is ok. Connie’s book, “Talk Less, Say More,” helped me with communication and she really provides some very practical guidance on covering three things in a memorable fashion.

    If you are interested here is a link; http://onpointcomm.com/

    Found your blog from a friend. Great job!

  4. Roger Dooley
    Twitter: rogerdooley
    says

    Thanks, Steve and Richard, for the interesting references to other proponents of the Rule of Three!

    Roger

  5. Eric Wholley says

    Hi Roger

    Yet another great post. In these days of growing competition (and, let’s face it, distractions) applying The Rule of Three can be the difference between success and failure.

    Eric

  6. Rick Roberge says

    This is scary! I don’t know why, but I’m always starting emails and conversations with, “Three quick things. First…” Even when I don’t know the number before I start, I find it’s a way to get myself organized. Sometimes, I wind up with two and don’t have a third. Sometimes, I think of a fourth and add it. Either way, it helps me and I think that it’s easier for the other person to follow along.

    Thanks, interesting.

    1. Michael Harris says

      Brian great piece on anecdotal evidense to support the rule of three. Works well when you combine it with Susan’s piece below.

  7. Susan Weinschenk says

    Hi Roger:

    There is research showing that the number is 3-4. Baddeley has conducted research and reviewed the research. I wrote about it here:
    http://bit.ly/asqJlq

    and here are the Baddeley references:

    # Baddeley, A. D. (1986). Working memory. New York: Oxford University Press.
    # Baddeley, A. D. (1994). The magical number seven: Still magic after all these years? Psychological Review, 101, 353-356.

    1. Michael Harris says

      Great article Susan. I’d read that urban myth as well and Cowan has research to support three as well. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2001, Nelson Cowan, professor at Department of Psychological Sciences

  8. Amanda says

    The rule of three is also supported from an anthropological standpoint in the book, “Instant Appeal: The 8 Primal Factors That Create Blockbuster Success.”

  9. Joyce says

    When I teach persuasive communication to job seekers, I build on the rule of three. If somthing happens once, it’s a fluke. If the same something happens twice, it can be written off as coincidence. But if a certain something happens (or is communicated) three times, it’s a pattern and we believe it.

    Classically structured jokes stand on the rule of three: set up, validation and violation. Narrative stories come in three parts: beginning, middle and end.

    Our communication runs on the rule of three, but I’ve never really understood why.

  10. Tyler Totman
    Twitter: FAPhoenix
    says

    Interestingly McKinsey consultants are said to use three as a magic number for most things. Perhaps a practice refined from years of consulting excellence?

    1. Roger Dooley
      Twitter: rogerdooley
      says

      I can’t say why McKinsey seems to use that number, but it’s likely either a result of experience or looking at research like that cited here. If you really want to get carried away, note that there are three syllables in McKinsey. 😉

      Roger

  11. Roger Parker says

    You might be interested in Jim benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry’s fascinating book, Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life.

    In support of the importance of three, the system is based around columns: Ready, Doing, and Done displayed on a white board. Tasks are identified on sticky notes. The sticky notes are physically moved from column to column.

    The authors emphasize limiting work in progress to no more than three sticky notes in each column.

    I think asymmetry plays a role in the power of 3. If you go to four, it inevitably looks balanced, i.e. 2 + 2, which upsets the tension of small, medium, and large, good, better, best, etc.

    BTW, I discovered you through the Writer’sAccess webinar.

    1. Roger Dooley
      Twitter: rogerdooley
      says

      Thanks for stopping by, Roger!

    2. Roger Dooley
      Twitter: rogerdooley
      says

      Interesting connection to “threes” and productivity, Roger! I’ll check out the book you mentioned. You might find this post of mine interesting, it also covers “to do” tracking: https://www.neurosciencemarketing.com/blog/articles/free-to-do-list-apps.htm

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