The Rule of Three

January 21, 2010 by
Filed under: People, Process 

When I first started focusing on improvement initiatives (over a dozen years ago now), the typical approach was to perform a deep analysis and come up with a big laundry list of recommended changes. That never did much more than pad the wallets of the consulting firm that provided the recommendations. For that reason alone, I’m sure the approach won’t be going away soon. For the improvee, though, the victim of these massive recommendations, there remains hope for a better way. Apply the Rule of Three.

Whether working externally to help improve a client organization, or driving the effort from somewhere inside the team, or even focusing on things individually to make yourself more efficient or productive, don’t take on (or recommend taking on ) too many things at once.

Recognize that wholesale change is really a whole bunch of individual changes. Each of these changes has their own profile of value they might provide, and effort to incorporate that change into the existing culture. There might be potentially useful things that would catastrophically affect how people currently work, or simple little things that can make a huge difference. There will also be potential things to change that would ad no net value, and some that would set you back, sometimes quite seriously. With any large list of things to change, there will be a few home runs, and the rest that simply dilute the overall cost/benefit argument.

Avoid the culture shock of trying to do too many things at once. Certainly it makes sense to have a framework in mind that you are working towards, but use that framework as a means of structuring the strategic vision, don’t plop down the book and tell people this is the new way of doing things. Many improvement initiatives, perhaps most of them, even if they are deemed successful, would likely benefit from a more narrow focus on things to work on. Less disruption, less new things to take on, less pushback, and a more concrete relationship between cause and effect. You will often get a faster return on investment, as well.

All this makes it easier for everyone in the organization to see the value. At the top, it becomes more attractive to adopt a real strategy of continuous improvement. Further down, there is less imposition of change for change sake, and more attractive benefits such as reduced chaos, and more opportunity to turn out a higher quality product.

If you are driving initiatives like this from inside, you’ll have a more sustainable (and easier) role moving forward. If you have helped drive things from outside, you are more likely to be invited back, and be heartily recommended to others as well.

Keep the new things to tackle at three things, three things only. Find the really attractive ones, implement them, reflect (quantifiably if at all possible) to confirm that there really have been improvements, and do it all again.

When you were looking at what potential things to do, there’s a really good chance that there were more than three on your list. Depending on how detailed you go, there can easily be 50 or more. Be sure to re-asses rather than just knock off the next few items. All those other priority items, from number four through n on your list, will have shuffled dramatically in order.

There’s a good chance that the first few on the remaining list simply dropped because the changes you made affected them in a positive way, and maybe something that wasn’t even on the list last time becomes the new top item to deal with. It’s also possible that in the intervening time, changes in the composition of the team, the nature of the business, or the stage of product development has shuffled the nature of how effectively the work is being done.

In one case quite some time ago, all we focused on was capturing requirements, and putting a credible schedule together based on this clearer picture of scope. Surprisingly (at least at the time, not so much in retrospect), one of the biggest visible changes was that product quality improved dramatically, even though there was no specific emphasis on any testing of the system.

Most times someone has a big shopping list of stuff to do (and this include packaged systems that will come and go – pick your poison here), it is almost accidental that some good comes out the other side, and it is often clouded by all the stumbling and collisions that take place. Apply the Rule of Three, though, and you dramatically increase the likelihood of success, see that value sooner with less cost and pushback, and that distaste around improvement will go away altogether. – JB


One Response to “The Rule of Three”

  1. Intentional Influence | Clarrus on January 31st, 2010 9:36 am

    […] incremental changes only, do not attempt to correct all potential issues at once. Select the most critical few, adjust, then […]

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