The Rule of Three* – Presenting Alternatives

3 glass jars

When managing a programme of work or a service delivery – there will always be junctions and decisions that need to be taken on which direction to take. Managing these and presenting alternatives for decision is a problem solving skill.


I once worked for an organisation with a CEO who had a simple instruction to his managers – “Don’t bring me a Tina”. The Tina in question being – ‘There is no alternative’. This CEO, who had worked as Head of IT in a large utility, knew that whenever he was presented with a single possible alternative course of action it was a trap.

Whilst in his instruction he hadn’t specified how many valid options or alternatives he wished to be presented with, we know that there is always more than one possible alternative. A good starting point for alternative options is the default of either doing nothing or carrying on doing the same. However, if one option is a trap then two options can become a decision dilemma; like black and white or yes and no. A decision either way is open to criticism and thinking can become polarised.

Three alternatives typically allow for discussion and some consideration of the relative pros and cons to ensure ownership and understanding of the decision without creating too many options and potential thus ‘analysis paralysis’.

*The Rule of Three - Gerald M. Weinberg, ‘The Secrets of Consulting’, Dorset House, New York USA, 1985.


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