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Three is a Magic Number

In the business world, I have always promoted the use of 3 many times and in many ways. Why not. Steve Jobs did it so it must be right. I was at a client the other day and we were discussing his management team. He wasn’t getting any information out of them on a regular basis. I advised to have each of them present to him 3 Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). He asked, why 3? I told him that it wouldn’t be too burdensome on his team to come up with 3 KPI each. That night, I questioned my insistence on 3 KPIs, so I decided to consider other numbers.

The simplest question I wanted to answer was; Why not 2 or 4? When I started to research the number 3, there were tons of examples of its use; 3 bids on a job, 3 levels of pricing, 3 Stooges, 3 Little Pigs, 3 acts in a play, etc. The list was quite long, but there were still no good reasons why to use 3. Once I began focusing on science and psychology I started to get some useful information.

Three is the least amount of something to; see trends, get perspective, or the depth of something. If we lived in a 2-dimensional world we wouldn’t be able to see the depth of things. If we get 2 bids on a job, we’re not getting much perspective as to which bid is best. If we receive 2 data points, we are not yet able to understand trends. You need to get to 3 of something to get depth and perception. I suppose this holds true for groups of 3 people as well. The depth of a conversation is much greater with that third person. So why not 4? Take the example of getting bids on a job. We don’t want to create more work than necessary, so let’s get to the point where we have perspective and cut it off there.

On the lighter side of things, here are a few more tidbits:

For those who remember Schoolhouse Rock, click on this link and try not to sing along.

I thought a hockey hat trick originated from hockey, but it doesn’t. The term first appeared in 1858 in the game of cricket. When a player takes three wickets on three consecutive deliveries it’s called a hat trick. The bowler would receive a hat from his club commemorating the feat, and sometimes passed it around to collect cash.

Let me know why you love the number 3.

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