The Rule of Six

One night at a party, a group of us began talking about “The Rule of Six,” a Native American thought-pattern that I have found useful in my work with organizations, as well as in my personal life.  

Others around the table had also found the idea very useful in work situations, and asked if there was something written down on it.  I said I didn’t know of anything, although undoubtedly the Native wise woman, Paula Underwood (author of Who Speaks for Wolf and The Walking People) who taught it to me, has written of it somewhere in her work.  Years back Paula had provided a seminar for corporate leaders and consultants to help us understand what the Native American tradition might teach us “corporate types” about the nature of change.  One of the most powerful lessons was “The Rule of Six.”  So I promised to put down on paper my (mid-Western, non-Native) understanding of “The Rule of Six” for whatever use folks could make of it.

How does The Rule of Six work?

When we are trying to figure out something perplexing (for which we often use the term “a problem”), or when we are facing into uncertainty, (for which we use the term “change”) it seems natural to our western way of thinking to quickly try to find the right answer to questions like this: “Exactly what is the cause of this?  What’s going on here?  How are things going to unfold?  What is likely to happen? What should be our plan?”  

Many of the most heated arguments, whether within our own heads, or among colleagues or with family members, are about who has the one right answer to those question before us. 

The “Rule of Six,” a Native American thinking process or discipline, requires that instead of coming up with one single answer to the question, (which comes, of course from the story we tell ourselves about what is going on) we instead come up with at least six possible, or good, stories about what is going on.  And then having done that, we hold all six stories in our head, and do not choose among them.  

This is very hard for the Western mind.  Even when we think of two possibilities, it is for the implicit purpose of having those two possibilities fight it out, until one wins.   Thinking about more than one cause of an event or more than one possibility of an outcome is, in our mind, simply an invitation for us to quickly choose the right one.  In fact, we move so quickly from what we observe, to the story we tell ourselves about that observation, to a conclusion, that we hardly realize that there is a space between what we see and the story we tell ourselves about it.  We go from perception, to story, to conclusion in a nanosecond. We collapse awareness into action as if they were a single thing.

The Native tradition, by contrast, holds that there is a generous and open space after we notice something.  And that is the space within which to hold many possible interpretations, or causes, or developments. 

The ability to hold six possibilities in our mind accomplishes several things.  It keeps our perceptions open to a wider range of data; it allows us to be “systems thinkers” seeking multiple roots of causality in multiple dimensions of a situation; it keeps folks from having to fight with each other about who is right at a time when they should be listening with curiosity to why each other sees things differently.  And since we are not forcing ourselves to invest our ego in a single “best” idea, we naturally become more flexible in our thinking, and if our “favorite” of the possibilities doesn’t turn out to be born out by the unfolding of data, we can more easily shift our emotional commitment to another idea which in the course of time has proved stronger.  And we can make that shift earlier and more easily.  So in a sense, the Rule of Six allows us to make necessary decisions, yet remain aware and realistic, more flexible in our thinking, present to the world and to the thoughts and perceptions of others, and perhaps even more compassionate with ourselves when we are “of two minds” or more, about something. 

A personal discipline to increase “rule of six” capacity

My friend Dawna Markova (author of No Enemies Within and  I  Will not Die an Unlived Life)  has taught me a walking meditation that I use when I am struggling with something, which can serve as a companion to “The Rule of Six.”  It goes like this.  You walk, alone or with a friend, and say, “What I notice is this….” “And the story I tell myself out it is that….”  “What I am feeling is this.…” “And the story I tell myself is that….”  What I hear is this….” “And the story I tell myself is that….” (On the one hand, and on the other hand.  On the one foot, literally, and on the other foot.) 

Having worked on the mental discipline of observation, story, observation, story, you can begin to work on the discipline of multiple stories: “What I notice is….”  “And the story I tell myself is.…” “Another story I could tell myself is ….and yet another story I could tell myself is…And a fourth possible story is....” 

This meditative discipline enlarges the space between the perception and the story, or judgment, or decision.  And it increases our ability to see many possible stories, and hold them all, in the same way “The Rule of Six” does.  

A link between the Rule of Six and Scenario Planning

This year in a course I was teaching on the leadership of non-profits, we began to see the way in which the Rule of Six was like “scenario planning” the process made popular in the book The Art of the Long View by Peter Schwartz.  Scenario planning requires the mental discipline of going out in time (five or ten years) and looking back to the present moment, then telling five or more stories of how events unfolded in vastly different ways, for a community, or an organization.  (It was Royal Dutch Shell which first used this thinking discipline to “prepare” itself for the surprise of the 1973 Oil Embargo).  One is required to name the various stories that unfold, and to make sure that one is an “unspeakably awful” alternative, and one is the current “favorite” and that a range of other possibilities are developed in great detail.  Having developed those stories about the unfolding of events from a present moment toward a future yet unknown, one has then accomplished several important shifts in mind-set:

--One has spoken the unspeakable, and therefore lessened the grip of unspoken fears about the seemingly awful alternative;

--One has found ones own place, or role, within a range of possible futures; and one can see that all are survivable, or even have unexpected plusses;

--One has identified certain key “events” or “surprises” that would indicate that one or another scenario is unfolding, and one has lived that scenario fully enough in ones mind to be able to step quickly into the surprise (that is the Royal Dutch Shell story);

--One can see that there are certain “no-brainer” actions that need be taken immediately under any scenario, and one is energized to do those things.  This breaks the usual trance which uncertainty engenders: Often the uncertainty about the future keeps folks frozen waiting for the clarity they believe they need in order to act.  But no matter how great the uncertainty, how dire the straits, there are usually certain good things to do, no matter what.  As a friend of mine in Detroit often says, “I can’t know who will head the company tomorrow, but whoever it turns out to be, it will have been a good thing, today, to have made perfect quality car parts and shipped them to the customer on time.”

The natural world reminds us of the Rule of Six

I have found that it is one thing to know intellectually about the Rule of Six, and another thing to be able to live it naturally, when we feel pressure.  Still there are reminders of the wisdom of the rule of six everywhere in the natural world.  When I was recently on an Outward Bound canoeing expedition, I caught myself wanting to figure out in advance the “right way” to get down the river.  Day after day I learned there were always multiple paths down the river, and the better of the ways only became evident as we were in the canoe on the river. 

If you have done any farming, you know that when the crops fail, or you have bumper yields, there are always multiple reasons: weather, soil quality, soil preparation, pests, seed quality, timeliness of harvest. 

The best natural reminder of the Rule of Six came to me recently, with perfect serendipity.  I was working with colleagues who head a retail business, and we were sitting at the picnic table in front of my house, on a sunny day, talking about the rule of six, and how it might inform the strategy for their 25-year old enterprise.  The neighbor’s cat sprang up on the table and began walking all over our papers, nuzzling folks for attention, purring.  Up and down the picnic table, pacing back and forth, purring.  I kept pushing her out of the way.  Finally a colleague asked me the cat’s name.  I pointed to her funny paws, with the six fingers, “Six,” I said, pushing her aside, yet one more time.  “The cat’s name is Six.”  We burst out laughing. 

So now, I am trying to keep my eyes open to the many ways the natural world provides us with evidence of the power of the rule of six.

I welcome your thoughts about these ideas, and any experience you have using them.

PS. I faxed this note to Paula Underwood, and she liked it and sent me in exchange, a left brain and right brain versions of the rule of six.

The Rule of Six: For the Left Side of the Brain (written by Paula Underwood)

For each apparent phenomenon, devise at least six plausible explanations, each one of which indeed explains the phenomenon.  There are probably sixty, but if you devise six this will sensitize you to how many there may yet be and prevent you from focusing in on the first thing that “sounds right” as The Truth.  Disciplining yourself to think in this way—maybe this is happening, but on the other hand, maybe that is happening—keeps you from being rigid in your thinking, which in my tradition is considered to be extraordinarily counter productive.

Now you assign a personal probability factor to each explanation.  This probability factor will be based on your personal experience.  This is all you have to go on.  Someone else’s probability factor will be different because their experience is different.  You will understand this.  This is OK.  It is inevitable.  

Each of us has different experience and, therefore, different estimates of probability. This personal probability factor can never be 100%--and never, never 0%.

You see how it is?  How all conclusions are wisely tentative, as new information may come in at any moment.  Yet, whenever a decision is necessary, you can instantly and clearly select between your top three probabilities.  All, we hope, above 95%!  Decisions are, thus, enhanced and expedited, while the mind is kept alert to new possibilities.

The Rule of Six: For the Right Side of the Brain (Written by Paula Underwood)

When I was even younger than I am now and brought my thoughts to my father, he would often say, “Remember the Rule of Six.”  Yes.  The Rule of Six.  So inculcated in my nature by now that I have great difficulty in naming only one thing as the root cause of anything else.

For life is like this:  So many individuations acting and interacting at every identifiable moment, that nothing at all, no one thing, can cause anything else.

The Rule of Six says, “For every perceivable phenomena devise at least six explanations that indeed explain the phenomena.  There are probably sixty, but if you devise six, this will sensitize you to the complexity of Universe, the variability of perception.  It will prevent you from fixing on the first plausible explanation as The Truth. 

And so it is, in a complex and changing world in which the past affects the future, but the future also affects the past, at least in that our understanding of the probable determines many of our decisions, provides signposts along many diverging, converging paths.

What we see when we open our eyes . . . depends on where we are standing at the time.  Only move a little, to left, to right . . . gain the view from there.  Tell me now, my Brothers, my Sisters, what does your New Vision show you?  Move around the Circle of the Earth once more . . . and look again!  A quarter turn to the left.  A quarter turn to the right.  Sit in the East and study life.  Sit in the South and wonder.  How is it to view the world from Moscow?  Leningrad?  Vladivostok?  How from Durban? Cairo? New Guinea?

We are all Earth’s Children, and each view has value.

Now turn the Wheel on its edge, my Brothers, my Sisters.  How is it now to view Life . . . as Wolf?  As Eagle?  As those with a Hundred Legs?  Crawling, walking, swimming through Life . . . How is it now?

Complete the Circle in three dimensions . . . and then we will talk. -   Kind Thoughts Come.

The Rule of Six and the Imagination (written by Judy Brown)

December 19, 2000

Today, Michael Jones, writer, pianist and composer and I were talking with appreciation and sadness of Paula’s passing on December 2 of this year.  And of her gifts and wisdom.  I asked if he knew of the Rule of Six, and when he said “no,” I sketched the idea, briefly.  I said that usually, when we Westerners and non-Indigenous people come up with alternative explanations, it’s in order to kill off all alternatives except the one “winning” alternative.  Michael laughed and said that when the imagination senses that’s the game, the imagination says “No way.  I’m headed for the country for the day.  Let me know when you’re finished behaving like this.”  And so our alternative thinking lacks imagination.  Paula’s Rule of Six invites the imagination back into the game, into the creation of alternative perspectives and possibilities.