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The Wisdom of the Rule of Three

The Wisdom of the Rule of Three

For years I trained consultants in the ambiguous and complex art of innovation at a prestigious consulting firm. I was amused at their indoctrination which included an unbending adherence to the rule of three. No, not that bad things happen in threes but rather that a client should always be given three paths to action: most ambitious, most cautious and a middle way. These correlate to best case, worst case and most probable case. The objective of this rule is to provide some perspective as to the range of options available, cover as much of the upside and downside of the issue in question as reasonable and to gauge the client’s level of aspiration. Given that most of us can only really remember three things at a time, this rule is simply a strategy to break habit bound thinking by showing obvious alternatives.

Lately I’m beginning to see the wisdom in the rule of three. Where it used to be that the center of the bell curve marked the gathering place of consensus or at least cooperative collaboration, it is now the right and left edges of the curve that define the places that keep us apart. These segments are defined by their oppositional relationships. Social media has exasperated the situation as it has become a micro-segmenting forum for marketers and provocateurs alike. Spin becomes the opinion of the segment, and in turn, the segment takes opinion as fact. Consider how many postings you have seen in the last week that not only express a contempt for an alternative point of view but support it with a barrage of partisan data, dubious facts and conspicuous omissions. These segments are motivated to act in a unilateral way sometimes with tragic consequences. The old adage “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts” appears to have little gravitas in a world where the two are now indistinguishable.

The most dangerous thing an innovator can do is to believe that they know something that is actually untrue and be unwilling to make adjustments to this belief as their experiences provide information to the contrary. So how do we gain real perspective in an environment designed to coopt our own thinking?

  1. Look in Your Blind Spots: When we drive, we know that our mirrors don’t reveal the entire situation so we glance over our shoulder just in case to see what we may have missed. The same is true when it comes to our thinking. Instead of “unfriending” that person in your social media network who is always rambling about politics or religion take a moment to actually read their posts. Ask yourself why they believe what they believe. Consider what it must be like to be in their shoes. Look for a deeper rational. This will enhance your understanding.
  2. Feed Your Head: Read, watch and listen to sources that you seldom encounter or fully engage. If you are straight read The Advocate, if you are progressive, read The National Review. Keep an open mind. Most importantly, look for information or a point of view where you can see a glimmer of truth even though you don’t necessarily adhere to it personally. Psychologists call this counter-attitudinal advocacy: making a strong argument for the opposition. This will increase your range.
  3. Check Your Facts: To gain perspective, you must move outside your normal sphere of influence. Talk with others who take a higher point of view. Consult experts who are more likely to be objective about the situation. Step away from your opinions for a moment and consider the salient facts these experts may possess. Listen for disconfirming feedback: where your ideas are proven to be wrong and your course of action erroneous. This will improve your accuracy.

Innovation requires us to have deep and wide field of vision and an open mind to see the reality of the situation. The challenge is to overcome our own limited perspective. As the philosopher Schopenhauer put it, “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” The next time you encounter a disagreeable idea count to three and consider how with a little creativity it might present some valuable new options that you may have overlooked.

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