Three is a Magic Number

joe —  Sun 24-Apr-11 — 3 Comments
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Multiplication Rocks Framed

Three is a magic number.
Yes it is.
It’s a magic number.

If you are in your forties or later you probably remember that little 3 minute cartoon from Schoolhouse Rock on Saturday mornings. Three indeed is a magic number.

Did you know that the triangle is the only shape that cannot be deformed without changing the length of one of its sides? This is why the triangle is the basic element of structures called trusses used in bridge design as well as construction of house roofs. If you need strength, three is your number.

The human brain tends to remember things more effectively in groups of three as well. Writers learned this long ago and developed a word for it – the tricolon.

“Vini Vidi, Vici” – Julius Caesar

“Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” – Abraham Lincoln

Even famous quotes like Churchill’s “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.” are pared down and remembered as blood, sweat and tears.

Photographers don’t use the Rule of Fourths, you never hear Old Fashioned Love Songs come down in four part harmony and Christians don’t worship the Holy Quad.

Three is a big deal.Three is also a very magic number when it comes to human interaction, meetings and developing new ideas. I personally consider it the perfect number for getting things done.

Meetings with 4Humans have a great propensity to want to decide between two options – adding a third one really makes the process more complicated. Psychologists have shown that choosing between A and B involves one comparison. When humans evaluate A, B, and C they actually make three comparisons (A vs. B, B vs. C, A vs. C) even when only two may be necessary. Determining which is best is so much harder than which is better. That’s why most common business decisions are usually simplified to either/or choices.

Three tips the scale when it comes to either/or decisions. It’s the fewest number of people that can break a tie. Only half the numbers in the world can do that and why have five or more people at a meeting when three will do?

The third person in a conversation can also prevent one individual from dominating another. When an interaction gets out of balance human nature forces us to want to tip the scales back to a level state. Unfortunately this is very difficult to do if you are one of the two involved in the heat of the discussion. Number three to the rescue.

As an added bonus, three is very valuable in turning “He Said – She Said” situations into “He Said – She Said – They Said.” Much like the third leg on a stool, the third person adds stability to group dynamics.

Finally, people need time to process information. Conversations are often between two people discussing the merits of their opposing ideas. It’s very hard to listen to both sides when you are actively presenting or being the one persuaded. The third person has the unique vantage point of being the outside observer. He can take it in without worrying about what he is going to say next.

When I arrange meetings I consciously consider the number of people invited. Unless the topic is obviously a one-on-one discussion, I purposefully try to find a way to have only two others invited with me. Things get amazingly more complicated when the fourth person is added and we all know that productivity goes downhill quickly with any more than that.

Granted you need to have the right people at a meeting and sometimes this alone dictates how many need to attend. However, if you are the one calling the meeting you may want to consider a way to structure the topic so that the right number of people to attend turns out to be three.

It has made an amazing difference in the productivity of meetings.

Today’s Question
Do you consciously consider the ideal number of people to attend your meetings to be productive or do you focus on including people for the right political reasons?

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  • Ntowey

    Neither. I invite people to meetings primarily based on their domain knowledge. I invite them if they will have contructive and informative input.

  • Ntowey

    I might be more successful if I invited people for the right political reasons. :-)

  • http://twitter.com/michaelhughesua michaelhughesua

    I focus on getting the correct perspectives or subject matter experts, and the right enablers for any decisions that get made. (Are those “political reasons?”) Since most of my meetings are on phone and screen share, the dynamics of numbers “seems” irrelevant. That could be an interesting avenue of pursuit. Also, since most of my meetings (typically design sessions) seek a consensus, the need for the odd-numbered tie-breaker seems irrelevant as well.