Updated: Oct 24, 2022
Over twenty years of teaching teams and organisations to support their discussions with pen and paper we kept meeting the same insight so often it became so familiar we gave it a name: the one-third rule or the thirds rule. Someone in the team would say it is not us it's them. Or it's the management, or the system or the professions and consultants who dip in and out of everyday working life. Or although it went unsaid everyone would go away with a nagging feeling it is all their fault. The blame or the responsibility would pinball around. It's you? is it us? or them? Is it me? Or the system? These are uncomfortable moments which undermine our reflective capacity. As one person put it. You don't play the game of sticking the tail on the donkey because the donkey might be you.
Mapping moments at work in teams, especially where there is a complex mix of roles and tasks something surprising often happens. We notice that we are working with a mixture of roles and responsibilities. The fingers stop pointing at each other and point at the different places on the map with observations and then negotiations about me being here on the map and you being there. We hover and shimmer between different points of view and ways of seeing and saying things. Looking at the map of the keywords in the conversation, it is clearer that there are several patterns of relating going on at once. The map measures up to this complex push and pull of influence and control as well as the call and response of voices for and against one solution or one line of responsibility and another.
Mapping and tracking this vital and often fleeting back and forth of ideas and feelings led to us making what we called the "one-third rule". It goes like this, in any moment of difficult or conflicting views, or in any moment of breakthrough and celebration keep in mind the "one-third rule" which is to say one-third of what is driving what is happening for better or worse right now is coming from me, one third is coming from you and one third is coming from the system (or the model or the profession). Don't pin it all on one of these three. Of course, it is tempting because to pin it all on one because binary thinking gives the illusion of tidy thinking for a moment or two. It may make things tidier to blame the system or take it all on yourself, but the reality is always more nuanced.
Of course, it is never exactly one-third this person is responsible and one-third me and one-third the system. It is simply a useful rule of thumb to hold in mind and check in with automatically like a driver checking the rearview mirror.