Origins of the Theory of Three

A few months ago, I tried to solve a problem which was beyond the scope of my capabilities. That problem was the chain of command. Here is a crude rendering of the chain of command:

The red rectangle at the top represents the highest element, with red arrows representing commands issued from that element. Green elements are subordinate to red but issue their own commands to the blue elements, which then pile on to the lowest level workers/soldiers/Marines. Even though it is convenient to think that the buck stops somewhere (i.e., LtCol Soandso is the commanding officer of 3rd Thinking Battalion), in reality, everybody in the military has a boss to report to. If you follow the chain all the way up you could argue it stops with the President, but he is (in theory) answerable to the people. In any event, when you’re a low rank (let’s say E3 or Lance Corporals and below – I use USMC jargon), like our lowly triangle, you pretty much get shat on all the time. There are very few (if any) effective ways to communicate grievances upward. At times, it may even be difficult to communicate mission-oriented information upward.

Most Lance Corporals and below live in relative fear of their Corporals and Sergeants and have little to no face time with anybody more senior than that. There are very few channels to properly approach a more senior person, and even though many will offer an “open door policy,” such a policy is tongue-in-cheek because they also advise that one “use the chain of command first,” which means going to those very same Corporals and Sergeants that might be causing the problems. So, what do you do?

Well, as I suggested here, you could alter the chain of command a bit by creating a billet that deals specifically with communicating the needs/grievances/etc of the Lance Corporals and below up the chain of command. I’ll borrow the graphic from that post so you can see what such a chain would look like:

This idea didn’t fly. I was told to think of a less “revolutionary” idea and a more “evolutionary” idea. And that’s just what I did. I examined the individual Marine – what were the essential ingredients that made a Marine? Well, this is an easy question for a Marine – we’d go straight to our Core Values. Marines have Honor, Courage, and Commitment. In a sudden burst of insight, I realized that’s all a Marine would ever need (given a little reconceptualizing). How is this? The Marine Corps could instill the Core Values in boot camp, but then have follow on training tie in with these values. So rather than worry about “job proficiencies,” you learn about what Honor, Courage and Commitment mean to an infantryman, what they mean to an air-winger, and what they mean to a maintainer. Thus were the beginnings of the theory of three:

The circles represent contexts that a Marine could exist in – such as infantry, air wing, and maintenance – and the picture demonstrates that, at least theoretically, there should exist values for A, B, and C that satisfy any context. So, how would one best group together Marines? Well, for one, I realized the chain of command already pretty much looked like a giant triangle.

As you can see from my crude paint edit, the triangular form was there, lurking. Which is good news; we want members of an organization to identify with that organization, so if we model individuals as triangles and the group ends up being a super triangle, then that’s fantastic. Let’s take a look at what 3 Marines look like in a grouping:

I figured that grouping the individuals into a shape they already represented made the most sense. To elaborate, our “Marines” here are already triangles, and identify themselves as such. Therefore, it would be easier for them to identify with a “triangular” group. This grouping also models synergism, demonstrating that it is highly effective – 1 + 1 + 1 = 5. (Somewhere around here I discovered some other things and went a little bit off the deep end.) Here’s where things get a little wonky.

This grouping effect can repeat infinitely. So far, each line has represented Honor, Courage, or Commitment when it comes to our triangles. But once you’ve “mastered” the concept of a Marine and a Marine grouping, you can represent an ideal Marine with just one line. Therefore, each triangle you draw becomes a group, and you throw three triangles together to create a larger group (such as a squad, on to a platoon, to a company, to a battalion, and so on). Really, though, throwing three triangles together may be an unnecessary step (but it helps one conceptually):

Here we see the same idea represented two ways – one with the “Tri-Force” approach, and one with the dotted lines. The dotted lines don’t -need- to be there; this is the same group/idea of a group being modeled. Those lines demonstrate the exploded value of each of the lines of the triangle. They signify “hey, this is a loaded concept! If you do not understand this group, let me explode it out for you.” Below is a picture that also represents the infinitely repeating nature of this concept:

The thing that gave me pause for consideration about this idea – and something I may expound upon later – is that a lot of concepts come at us in threes. Honor/Courage/Commitment was already there for me to take, but here are some other ones off the top of my head: life, liberty and pursuit of happiness; father, mother, child (family); the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There’s a lot of logic working behind the scenes with this idea (namely, syllogisms) which makes me wonder if perhaps this is the eternal form – being that any idea/argument can be postulated and drawn as a single line, or one of the sides of this triangle. Remember that argument forms may be valid even if their contents are false. Another interesting observation was that the “TriForce” grouping has twelve lines – lots of symbolism there.

The Theory of Three, as I call it, could be used to model some powerful stuff – like belief. But it seems to be lacking in a practical application, because groups do not yet organize themselves this way.

3 thoughts on “Origins of the Theory of Three

  1. Good stuff. This is definitely an issue for contemporary civilian management, as well. The old line management models have been breaking down with all the things that are shifting in the world — for ex. the changes from industrial economies (manufacturing = C&C structures = “management” models) to service-based (distributed/shared/enabled/networked “leadership” models. Also the requirements to distribute decision-making that come with globalization.) Business schools like to to use military examples of networked decision-making, esp. from special military units, “commander’s intent”, etc., as much as they used to model after the military in the 50s. Of course, I have no idea how that all works. YMMV.

    Anyway, you might be entertained by Pearce & Conger’s articles/book on “shared leadership.” Or you might not. But at least as far as structure goes, you are walking a similar path that I think other thought leaders are exploring, where the “what” is decided more centrally, the “why” is distributed (mission/purpose), but “how” emerges throughout the organization. Well, that’s my take on it. Anyway, just a rambling response to some interesting thoughts you have here.

    • Thanks for reading and responding. I was partly inspired by civilian concerns, as well. I was in an organizational communication class when I came up with these ideas. (I wish I still had that textbook here with me!) Commander’s Intent is an interesting concept – one that I support and one I think lends itself to the Theory of Three moreso than the conventional Chain of Command. The thing about ToT is that it creates self-sufficient blocks at nearly every level – right on down to a self-sufficient individual – which makes shifting responsibilities easier/smoother/faster.

      I’ll check that book out when I get back from leave!

  2. Pingback: Everything and Nothing; The Rule of 0 « The Crimson Void

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