Harnessing the Power of Three

Jan 03, 2019


There’s something about threes.


Something about the beautiful simplicity in the number three does magical things to our simian brains. Is it the fact that our celestial journey takes place on the third of several rocks spinning quickly around our sun? Or is it something more practical, rooted in the gravitational (and architectural) implications of three points defining a plane? Maybe our numeric system places significance on three as a building block, based on its designation as the first odd prime (and the first Fermat prime, and the first Mersenne prime).

I don’t know.

But what I do know, is that there’s something about threes. Our mythologies, histories, and political systems are inseparably bound to the number three. In fact, our very existence as humans—our CULTURE—revolves so significantly around the number three that I am surprised we humans haven’t deified the number itself.

Oh, wait. We have.

The impact of the number three on human experience is undeniable. Our story is divided into threes, as if this is something our brains require. Think about it:

  • Past, Present, Future
  • Beginning, Middle, End
  • Here, There, Everywhere
  • I, IV, V (shout out to the musicians out there)
  • You, Me, Them

We relate to the world around us in threes. Understanding this seemingly basic, universal human truth, you can make your interactions with other humans more meaningful and more memorable. How? Well, lucky for you, I have three (what did you expect?) ways you can harness the power of threes in your everyday work.


Have you ever been in a meeting or presentation and found yourself waking from a daydream only to realize you have no idea what you’re supposed to do or take away? Yeah, me too. While it’s your responsibility to pay attention in these events, don’t beat yourself up too much, because the speaker should shoulder some of the blame here as well. What can presenters do to make this information more easily consumed?

Most of you have probably heard some derivative of the saying “Tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, tell ‘em, then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.” This triptych gets the point across and savvy presenters can wrap it in to their presentation seamlessly. Further, you can distill your information into three points that fit inside this message, something like:

  • Here are the three things I want to talk about today.
  • Here are the details behind those three things.
  • Here is a recap of those three things and our actions going forward.

That’s a triple threat of threes.

Now, you may be thinking “But what if I have only two things to talk about? Or five?” To that I say you probably developed your presentation without the number three in mind. When you look back at your presentation with some three-colored glasses[1]Patent pending., you might be surprised to find that those two or five points really can be divided or distilled into three.


We spend a lot of time creating structures and frameworks for our work—systems and teams meant to compartmentalize workstreams. The most successful teams I’ve been on have been (inadvertently) based on threes. At Elicit, we use an approach to personal development, staffing, and structure called Geek, Nerd, Suit. This trinity is central to our work, and yet it’s brilliantly simple. Other organizations have delineated work in similar (less sexy) ways (Marketing/Sales/Research, Data/Analytics/Strategy, etc.).

We can look at mathematics, specifically graph theory, to understand why this works. In a three-team structure, there are only three relationships that need to be maintained.

A and B need to understand how their teams work together, as do A and C, and B and C.

But look what happens when a fourth team is added.

There are now three additional relationships to define and manage, as A, B, and C must integrate D into their working processes. In general, the number of edges (relationships) grows as the number of vertices (teams) increases. For a five- or six-team system, this number of relationships increases to 10 and 15, respectively.

Inside these three teams, for similar reasons, a leader should have no more than three direct reports (when possible). Managing the performance and development of more than three people is difficult and leads to the possibility of either somebody slipping through the cracks or everyone getting insufficient attention.


Variety is the spice of life, but too much variety may lead to Cheesecake-Factory-menu paralysis. People like to have choices, but not too many choices. This is why markets are generally controlled by three competitors. Introduction of a fourth major competitor is often accompanied by acquisitions, mergers, or bankruptcies. In the music industry, we used to refer to the “big four” (Sony, Universal, Warner, and EMI). In 2012, however, Universal purchased EMI, leaving the newly formed “big three” to control almost 90% of the music industry. Now I’m sure at least a few fellow audiophiles reading this are reciting record labels in their head so let’s list a few.

  • Interscope (owned by Universal)
  • Def Jam (Universal)
  • Geffen (Universal)
  • Island (Universal)
  • Epic (Sony)
  • Columbia (Sony)
  • RCA (Sony)
  • Atlantic (Warner)
  • Rhino (Warner)

The “big three” have purchased or bankrupted almost all competition. The rebel alliance, that group of holdout independent labels (Rough Trade, Merge, Sub Pop, Matador and thousands of others), together make up less than 12% of the industry. Often referred to as “The Goldilocks Principle,” this phenomenon makes sense when thinking about it in terms of the children’s story. Consumers find comparison between three entities very easy, internally deciding “A is too hot, B is too cold, but C is just right.” Employing this concept in the office (e.g. “Here are three paths forward,” “This will likely lead to one of three outcomes”) allows you the ability to get timely decisions without overwhelming the decision makers. One way we implement this at Elicit is to test three solutions for every problem.This gives us the chance to easily compare and zero in on the best approach.

In conclusion, I think it’s safe to say that three is a pretty powerful number. Using the strategies I’ve suggested can make your interactions and work more efficient, interesting, and meaningful. I hope I’ve opened your eyes to the threes in your past, present, and future.

Footnotes   [ + ]