The Rule of 7…


You Don’t Have to Be Lonely

When I roll out a new sales campaign, delivery toolkit, or training of any kind I am gently reminded by well-meaning colleagues about the “rule of 7.” You marketing wonks will be very familiar with this concept but for the rest of us the premise is this:

If you’re trying to sell a product the audience needs to hear your message up to 7 times before they will make a purchase. The “rule” breaks down a bit in the online economy but the reasons boil down to some basic elements of communication theory. Simply put: you don’t want to hear advertising, so to get you to hum the Farmers Only jingle we’re going to hammer you with it during every commercial break until your head explodes.

Or, preferably, until you visit the Farmers Only website “as a joke” and browse the farmgirls and cowboys. Even if you don’t subscribe and pay, the Internet advertising revenue still has the potential for healthy returns. They call it a rule because it works.

Good Rule, Bad Application

Good intentions nonetheless misapply this rule for use with an internal audience. Keep in mind I’m talking about the very best of intentions here. I work with some great folks who absolutely want everything we roll out to be successful. When we deploy a new process, template, or tool in the workplace the orderly functioning of the business is literally on the line if the message sender is unclear or the recipient is unwilling. Let’s say we invest time and talent to establish training and communication for a new method to deliver some service. The training and other necessary collateral is inspected repeatedly before delivery to assure stakeholders the message is clear. We then establish that the new method is the only acceptable practice going forward and execute the “roll out” of this new method.

Good practices dictate we should train multi-modally, through presentations/recordings, written documentation, and in person reinforcement. The feedback my colleagues deliver in this process is invaluable. Still, after producing and delivering this training for the audience I am reminded insistently, persistently of the “rule of 7,” or “they won’t get it.” Further, if a campaign is an abject failure the first blame always falls to the trainer for not repeating the message sufficiently. It’s not enough to build and deliver the training material in three different media for an audience of willing and receptive listeners. We also need to deliver it seven times?

If you assume the audience is hostile and uninterested this need for repetition makes sense. Remember, though, we established up front the orderly functioning of the business (and by extension, job security) was dependent on the trainees’ personal investment in this exercise. What the proponents of this “rule of 7” are doing is simply shifting blame using an ill-suited axiom that few understand and none will challenge. There is a better way both to describe the problem and solve it at the same time.

Enter Sun Tzu

If you haven’t read Sun Tzu’s treatise “The Art of War” you need to put down the Cheetos and pick up a book. Sure, you’re not planning on a Mongol invasion this week but organizing and executing a plan for a new process rollout really isn’t all that different (terribly late nights, bad food, chaos, probably a few showers needed amongst the troops…). Luckily for us, Sun Tzu gets right to it in practice with his “Lesson of the Concubines.”

The Kraatz hyper-abridged version roughly reads like so:

  • Sun Tzu was challenged by the King to train an army of concubines and was given full authority to conduct the training as he saw fit
  • After the training, he ordered them to execute a task and they failed. His first response was “I must have been unclear; this is my fault” and so he repeated the training, more clearly now.
  • He again ordered them to execute a task and they failed. His response: “I was clear, they understood, so the failure is with the Captains. Kill a couple of them to send a message.”
  • The King objected to the killings (beheadings, if you insist) but Sun Tzu proceeded anyway.
  • Finally, he ordered the troops to execute a task and they succeeded. Sun Tzu then offered the troops for inspection and orders from the King, who declined.

Sun Tzu offers us a goldmine of lessons in a single vignette, all of them about accountability. He holds himself personally responsible first and foremost, making certain the training is relevant, clear, and that the audience understands. In the face of continued failure, he concludes their leadership, the Captains, were the cause. In one of the versions I read Sun Tzu needed to execute a few more concubines to drive the point home. Regardless, only after holding people accountable does the army perform properly.

And that is the message supporters of this “rule of 7” wish to avoid at all costs: accountability is key. Had Sun Tzu been forced to repeat himself 6 more times we wouldn’t be talking about Sun Tzu as a great strategist but how painfully bad was his leadership. If the people whose livelihoods depend on learning a new skill resist or refuse the problem isn’t repetition, it’s recalcitrance. Tough decisions have to be made to fix that issue. Good intentions won’t help.

After the King refused to inspect the troops, Sun Tzu remarked “This king is only fond of words and cannot carry them into deeds.”

Indeed. I don’t need to hear that 7 times to understand it.

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2 Responses to The Rule of 7…

  1. Michael says:

    So when do we start the public executions?

  2. Emily Noxon says:

    Genius. I especially love this, “If the people whose livelihoods depend on learning a new skill resist or refuse the problem isn’t repetition, it’s recalcitrance. Tough decisions have to be made to fix that issue. Good intentions won’t help.” AMEN.

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