I recently attended an internal training on Integrated Operations hosted by Delfina Govia. During her training, she provided an overview of concepts and frameworks to help oil companies achieve higher levels of profitability and efficiency. As it turns out, almost all of the concepts were organized in groups of three. She used a triangular model to represent a concept built on three pillar ideas, noting that a triangle was the strongest shape. I took particular interest in this and began to think deeper about the meaning and power of three. Having an advertising degree, psychology was a foundational component of most of my studies. Understanding these “universal truths” and the human connection to the concept of three is not only innately interesting to me but it’s also very applicable to a variety of business strategies.
Before we dive into practical business examples, let’s take a look at how the concept of three is embedded in art, entertainment and culture. There are tons of familiar examples using three. You just probably hadn’t thought about them as intentional. In art, there are three primary colors (red, yellow, blue). In music, the third note of every scale provides the most basic harmony. In comedy, writers have long thought that groups of three offer comic relief and create the most humorous combination. Even common sayings such as “3rd time's a charm” reinforce this concept.
At Veritas, we are a management consulting firm so I evaluated the ways in which this concept is applied to our work:
Limit pillar ideas to three
As I mentioned before, the triangular model is what got me interested in the concept of three. Basic geometric studies teach us that the triangle is the most stable shape. In engineering, bridges have structural elements based on triangles. In the military, a common defense technique is to triangulate your position, so you don’t get lost. The same idea can be applied to business.
As part of our projects we often need to leverage frameworks that help align teams and to make decisions. Using three pillar ideas strengthens models and frameworks and makes them more memorable. When possible, we limit the number of points or supporting details to the top three.
Limit the number of choices to three
I’ve heard it said that one option is not a choice and two options are a dilemma. While this may be true, too many choices can be paralyzing. When it comes to making decisions we have found that three options help to create an all-inclusive discussion.
When I worked at ad agencies and we would pitch concepts, we would typically offer three options; a safe option, a hybrid option and an out-of-the-box option. Most of the time, the clients would go with the middle-of-the-road option but the selection of this was made easier by having two other extremes as a comparison. In consulting, we have found that our clients like choices. These choices might be three different vendors, three different pricing models (low, medium, high) or based on complexity (basic, advanced, complex).
Limit the number of benefits to three
When recalling a list of items, a shorter list will be easier to remember. This is related to memory recall. One type of recall (free recall) often displays evidence of primacy and recency effects. Primacy effects mean you can recall items presented at the beginning of the list earlier and more often. The recency effect is when you can recall an item presented at the end of the list earlier and often. What can be derived from this is if a list is shorter, you will have more likelihood to remember the beginning AND end.
Similar to the limiting choices to three, limiting your value proposition to three key benefits can help prospects and consumers recall your benefits easier. You want potential customers to walk away from a pitch remembering the three things that make you unique.
As you can see, there are a lot of ways to apply the concept of three to business strategies. Limiting my points to three is no coincidence. Keep in mind, you don’t need to tailor EVERY model or list to three. If there are more than three core pillars in your strategy, or more than three viable recommendations, or more than three strong benefits, you do not have to pair it down just to make the concept of three work. However, it’s a good principle to follow if you can integrate it into your business strategies given the human connection to the number three.
Veritas Total Solutions is a management consulting firm. We specialize in various strategy & transformation solutions that enable companies and professionals to transform their businesses. If you are interested in learning more about our specific capabilities, contact us or subscribe to our blog to stay connected.