How to Unleash the Power of The Rule of Three

One of the most powerful tools I have used to affect change in my personal life and in working with organizations is called the Rule of Three.

Simple. Portable. Transferable. Scaleable. Strategic.

The crux of it resides in basic questions that begin "What are the three …?"

  • What are the three most important things our family could do this summer that would improve the quality of our life as a family?
  • What are the three things I want to accomplish between September 1, 2016, and June 30, 2017, that would lead me to judge that time to be a resounding success?
  • What are the three most important worship services for our congregation between September 11, 2016, and June 4, 2017? (And no cop-outs such as every worship service is important and potentially transformative for someone!)
  • What are the three things that, if accomplished, would most profoundly impact the way I feel about myself?
  • What are the three things I could do for my spouse/partner that would most deeply convey the truth, in a way s/he would feel, “I love you?”

You get the point.

Gary Keller has taken the strategy even further with his question, “What is the ONE Thing you can do this week such that by doing it everything else would be easier or unnecessary?”

But I find the Rule of Three contains enough challenge.

So why do I sometimes resist reaching for this most effective tool?

Put simply - it can be hard work to give an honest answer.

I may complain about being overwhelmed, about being swept along in the current of a fast flowing river but to reach out and grab the rope puts a strain on the arms, even if it is life-saving!

Pruning to three requires honesty, courage and time.

The difficulty of choosing among competing “goods” forms the other point of resistance.

A sample of comments that have floated by my family during the last 48 hours.

  • We want the kids to have as many experiences and opportunities as possible.
  • We want our children to live a balanced life and not think that “the treadmill” is the best or only model for a full life.
  • We want time for our family to be together as a family and not just when we are in the van dropping off one or the other.
  • We don’t have the resources - money, time, energy - to seize the day for each one of us.
  • This is a great chance for s/he to move to the next level in their swimming/dancing/baseball/baseketball/hockey/Lego/…
  • Our parents are getting older and we don’t know how much longer they will be able to go on such a journey.
  • Long hours now might open up huge opportunities.
  • We’re tired.

Making the decisions about “the three” is where leaders, of families and organizations, earn their money. “This is where we are going to invest our time, money, energy and heart” shapes and liberates but it also involves risk and saying “no” to other potentially good opportunities.

The choice may mean having to live with disappointment and loss.

Focus shapes and liberates but also involves potential loss.

Click to Tweet

This is hard enough in organizations with paid employees, each with competing interests, pet projects and different research findings. It can be very difficult for volunteer organizations and families where there is a strong need for people to “buy in” or, at least, to not “opt out.”

When compliance cannot be forced, the degree to which focus may be accomplished with grace is a measure of leadership style and the culture of a family and organization.

When compliance cannot be forced, the degree to which focus may be accomplished is a measure of leadership style and culture.

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The Rule of Three is a great strategic tool. It forces focus and can increase a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, efficiency and joy. That is a pretty good ROI, return on the investment, of some thinking and discernment.

Photo by Jimmy Musto from Unsplash​


  1. I so liked your tweet “focus shapes and liberates but also involves potential loss.”

    I was at a workshop recently where the presenter showed this in a simple way but setting a coin spinning end on end and then pressing gently on one side which of course stopped the coin from spinning further to whatever outcome it would have achieved. We would never know, said the presenter, if it was the same as what we influenced or if it was different. And in the larger, extrapolated context, if the result was influencing a loss of some kind or the joy of liberation. Or, if we had the do over, we would influence the same way.

    For some less than clear reason, my mind leapt to a compassion place…accepting that we influence outcomes the best way we know how or are capable of at the time and as you say, with focus (which means choices of influence or attention) which shapes and can liberate but also involves potential loss.

    1. Interesting example Carol and reminds me of the importance of some sense of grace in the midst of all of this.

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