The One Third Rule: either it is me, you or the system!

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 familiar and 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. No we are not, someone else would say, or it is you? is it us? or them? or the system? These are uncomfortable moments when you don't start sticking the tail on the donkey because the donkey might be you. Or more personally it is all your fault. Or more martyred it is all me.

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 more clear 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.

Mapping and tracking this vital and often fleeting to and fro 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 or bring up 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. Don't pin it all on one of these three. Of course, it is tempting because to pin it all on one tidies up the conversation. It may make things tidier to blame the system or take it all on yourself but the reality is always more nuanced. 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.

For more on the one-third rule see Therapy with a Map or check out details to book for the workshop Ten Key Skills in Talking with a Map

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