March brings a sense of comfort and relief. Just having arrived here implies we have navigated the dull, dark early days of New Year, survived the worst of the weather and come to terms with the success or failure of January’s resolutions. Either way, as the first quarter moves towards conclusion we are getting a real sense of where we are.
In business terms the end of March marks the end of the UK’s fiscal year. Historic reasons behind this were connected to the switch from the Julian to Gregorian calendar in the 17th century but a bigger factor, which embraced the whole northern hemisphere, was that as Springtime loomed, animals gave birth and shoots sprung, farmers and growers began to predict desired yields in accordance with what they planned to market. In some respects March is the new January and it propels us forwards as if it were the first month.
In addition to the nature/agriculture connection there is something even more deeply rooted in ‘things three’. Our planet, the third one from the sun, is a synthesis of three types of component; animal, vegetable and mineral. 1 This triumvirate of everything includes over 4000 minerals (and according to London’s The Natural History Museum, hundreds more are found each year). Three of these minerals; nickel, iron and cobalt are magnetic. This is important because magnetism holds the solar system in place ensuring the World maintains steady rotations in relation to the Sun, Moon and other Planets. Three’s touch ranges from the centre of the Earth to the furthest reaches. And probably beyond.
Keeping with physics, we know that the steadiest chair is a three-legged milking stool. Sailors and desert nomads always plotted their journeys by selecting three heavenly points, an ancient trick made current by today’s Sat-Nav manufacturers, internet map makers and guided missile engineers.
Pythagoras nominated three the perfect number and saw a triangle not only as a trio of angles, but as a mathematical manifestation of the beginning, the middle and the end.
As the human race progressed, ancient deities and philosophies evolved into organised religions. As they developed ‘three’ became a key constituent. Christianity has the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Judaism its three patriarchs and three matriarchs while Muslims can strive for three levels of faith; Islam, Iman, and I’hsan. At the heart of Buddhism lie the ideals known as the ‘Three Jewels’. The third number is central to culture and belief systems. When asked if THREE is mystical or magical, the pragmatic operator of a 3D printer will concede she cannot make a solid object with three planes. Any other number is possible but not three.
So how does three manifest itself in business? The Romans spoke (literally) about The Rule of Three. In the arts of oratory and writing this Tricolon is the use of three words, clauses, or phrases. The third word or example is a verbal punctuation that grabs your attention and guides you to the nub.
Think of Tony Blair proclaiming ‘Education, Education, Education’ or the opening words of Obama’s first inaugural speech ‘If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.’
Churchill, gave a famous wartime speech entitled ‘Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat’ yet it is often referred to as his ‘Blood Sweat and Tears’ speech, simply because it’s easier to recall three rather than four items.
Whatever your work role it is likely that you have to communicate. Even if you are the reserved/shy or the cool/ chilled type, your inner voice reminds you that communication is more than simply imparting information and detail, it’s about selling an idea, a product and yourself and to achieve this you need to create an impact. The Rule of Three is your key.
Borrowing again from the ‘ancients’, Aristotle (Art of Rhetoric, 350 BC ) described three ingredients for persuasion; Pathos (connecting to emotions to persuade the listeners of the argument through feelings), Ethos (engaging with the audiences’ ethics and values and creating personal kudos, ‘‘people buy people first’) and Logos (using logic to influence the listener with statistics, facts and reasoning.)
If you’ve ever become bogged down in creating or reading a business report THREE, with its signature of ‘tell them what you’re going to say, say it, tell them what you told them’ provides a clear and concise blueprint. The University of Sydney’s Business School 2 defines the layout with stereotypical antipodean aplomb and clarity:
1) Front Matter (Cover, Title Page, Executive Summary, Table of Contents, List of Figures)
2) Body of the Report (Introduction, Findings and Discussion, Conclusions, Recommendations)
3) Back Matter (Appendices, References, Glossary [if required] ).
Even if you struggle to make your business report riveting, with ‘three thinking’, you can at least keep it straightforward, navigable and purposeful.
And finally, where would business be if we didn’t still manufacture? For many years production managers have looked to the example of Toyota 3 and its Kanban (meaning signboard) ideology.
Its three goals are to produce the highest quality at the lowest cost in the shortest time. Also known as the ‘Lean’ concept, it grew out of post-war paucity of resources and as such, the first focus is to eliminate waste. Waste itself falls into three categories; Muda (Wastage in its broadest terms), Muri (over stretching the workforce) and Mura (unevenness and inconsistency in workloads).
We can see that from the micro through to the macro that this odd little digit has a big part to play. It is the only number that is the sum of its predecessors and the only number that when added to them is the same as when multiplied by them. Whether or not this impacts on you day to day is unimportant. What matters is that three thinking is significant in ways both subtle and obvious and the more you think about it, the more you’ll find.
1 Systema Naturae 1735, Carl Linnaeus.
2 http://sydney.edu.au/business (from © The University of Melbourne 2010)