The rule of three

  • Published
  • By Col. Eric P. Oliver

In 1994, the director for operations and logistics, at headquarters U.S. Strategic Command was a general who had flown all three bombers (B-52s, B-1s, and B-2s), both tankers (KC-135s and KC-10s), reconnaissance aircraft (RC-135s) and executive airlift (T/CT-39s).  He had commanded from the Squadron to the Wing level.  He had been the Commandant at Air Command and Staff College.  He had been the Strategic Air Command Inspector General.  He had been the Director for Plans and Programs at Air Mobility Command.  He had tremendous knowledge and experience.

In 1994, a Lt had just completed AF Basic Communication Officer Course.  He was almost devoid of knowledge, and utterly devoid of experience.  However, he was given an extraordinary opportunity; he was assigned to the General’s Special Projects Branch.

The Lt learned many things just by being in an office about ten steps away from the General’s office.  However, there was one lesson he took away that has stuck with him throughout his career: “The Rule of Three.”

Before you hear about the mysterious “Rule of Three”, you need some background.

The General was not really a humble or timid man.

The General was wholly intimidating.

The Lt had ample reason to feel that way.

The Lt had witnessed the General tell a Navy LCDR he wanted something by a certain date.  When the LCDR returned on that date without what had been requested, the General—without a hint of smile—flatly told the LCDR: “Come back tomorrow, and when you do, bring me what I asked for, because if you don’t, I am going to tear your [body parts] off and carry  [those body parts] around in my pocket until you do give me what I asked for.”  The Lt believed the General might actually do it.

The Lt had also witnessed the General calling Omaha Public Power Distribution’s customer service desk about a perceived electrical billing error.  The Lt had no idea what the facts of the case were, but he did see the General become so irritated he began shouting into the phone that he was the Director of Operations for USSTRATCOM—responsible for all the nuclear weapons in the US arsenal.  That probably impressed the customer service rep a bit, but it only became intimidating after he delivered his next line.  With the same flat tone he had spoken to the LCDR, the General told this unsuspecting electric company employee: “If you don’t fix this, I am going to rain all over your parade [emphasis in original].”  The Lt found the prospect of getting nuked over an electric bill altogether terrifying.

To the Lt, this General was simply the most intimidating person he’d ever met.  It was, therefore, a stunning surprise when the General, speaking at his farewell luncheon, said: “I am not always right.” 

The General waited for the initial shock to pass.  He then went on to teach the Lt “The Rule of Three”.  Here is what he taught him:

When your boss asks for you to go look at a problem and recommend a solution, you have work to do.  You should go back to your office; do the most thorough, careful analysis you possibly can in the time allotted; then present your recommendation—along with the best supporting arguments you can offer.  

At this point, your boss will make a decision.  If the boss takes your recommendation, great; you’re done!  If the boss doesn’t take your recommendation, the General went on to explain, you aren’t done; you still have vitally important work to do.

The boss isn’t always right.

Neither are you.

The General told the Lt: you must go back to your office, and first think long and hard about how important the decision was.  If you conclude that it was a really significant decision, the General said you have an obligation to review your work; you must look at the case you made, and then try to figure out how you and your boss came to different conclusions.  Did you miss something in your analysis?  Did you inadequately support your recommendation?  Did you simply fail to communicate effectively?  The General insisted you should not stop asking these types of questions until you know why you reached different conclusions.

At the end of your analysis, you might conclude you were right in your original recommendation, and yet you somehow failed to lead your boss to the right decision.   At that point, the General told the Lt, it is your duty to raise the question with your boss a second time.

The General explained that you must go back to the boss, explain that you know a decision was made, but also explain that you think the decision was important enough for another chance to make your case again.

If granted the re-look, lay out your case a second time—focusing hard on the key factors that you believe resulted in differing conclusions the first time.

Once again, if the boss takes your now much better-reasoned and better-argued recommendation, great; you’ve done your duty and you’re done!

Next came the truly surprising bit.

The General, the most intimidating person the Lt had ever met said: “If the boss doesn’t take your well-reasoned, well-supported, well-presented recommendation the second time, you STILL have work to do.”

The General was crystal clear that the Lt should only do this when it really, REALLY mattered.  He was emphatic that you absolutely should not do this very often.  However, the General was equally emphatic that if it really, REALLY does matter, you have an obligation to go back to your boss a third time.

The General was crystal clear you should approach the subject delicately.  Nevertheless, you should proceed—cautiously, with eyes and ears keenly tuned up and brain fully engaged ahead of the mouth—but proceed.  Procced by emphasizing that you know you’ve already visited this issue twice before, but also explaining why this case really, REALLY matters.

If granted a third re-look, it is imperative that you lay out your case clearly and succinctly.  It absolutely must be the best work you are capable of.  You must be laser-focused on those key points and illuminate them as powerfully as humanly possible.

When done delivering your magnum opus, your boss will make a third decision.  At that point, your work is done.  As the General put it, “you will have won your boss over, or you will have reached the point where you must never, ever bring the topic up again.”  The Lt had absolutely no doubt about that last bit.

There you have it… The Rule of Three.

The Lt has served many years now.  He can count on his fingers the number of times he has had to follow “The Rule of Three” all the way through the third round.  However, it has paid dividends.  Some truly strategic decisions have been changed in the third round.  Because it has provided utility, the former Lt is passing it on—with the same mandate the General gave the Lt all those years ago: it is your duty to help your boss make the best decisions they possibly can—do not shrink from doing your duty.