Three Chairs Method

On any given day of the week, nonprofits face multiple decisions, large and small. How do we know we’re making the right ones? 

The word billionaire is ubiquitously associated with certain names: Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett being two of the highest profile in the class. Aside from their immense wealth, one thing that links these tycoons is a surprisingly simple philosophy when making decisions. 

Jeff Bezos recently stated that making three good decisions per day is enough for him, while Warren Buffett said making one good decision a year is his goal. 

What does that mean? They’re suggesting that you prioritize quality over quantity. This philosophy goes a long way back in the business world. One of the most famous exponents was Walt Disney. His prioritizing skills have become a matter of academic study. It was Robert B. Dilts who distilled his method for us mere mortals, publishing his findings in his 1994 book: Strategies of Genius.

Essentially, it involves quantifying different paths of thought in order to explore any decision in depth. It’s a great tool when analyzing problems, helping create new solutions, and making effective action plans.

The Three Chairs Method

In Walt Disney’s office, there were always three chairs:

  • The spoiler seat 
  • The dreamer seat 
  • The realist seat 

The concept being that as Walt sat in each one he tried to take on a different mindset. Doing so would allow him to conceptualize the problem from various angles to generate creative and appropriate solutions.

1. The Dreamer Chair

The Dreamer Chair is a place for blue sky thinking. It’s the seat you take and say to yourself: “What if I had this? What if we could go there?” 

Whatever your nonprofit does or aims to do, this seat is where you expand out and into new territory. Today we might call it the visualization seat, as it’s letting your mind feel through the possibilities without hindrance. It was in the Dreamer Chair where Jeff Bezos went from selling books to selling everything and Walt Disney went from short cartoons to theme parks. It’s perhaps the most enjoyable seat in the office!

2. The Realist Chair

The Realist Chair is where your feet are firmly on solid ground, where your dreams are brought round to a more realistic scope. It’s not a seat of problems but of actualization of possibilities.

Maybe your dream is to host a huge fundraising event in a great location where people pay for the experience of a lifetime. Well, when you’re in this seat, you bring that down to a great fundraising event in a realistic location where you can enhance the experience with local attractions and imaginative themes. This is the seat where you marry together dream and reality, a perfect Walt Disney pastime.

In the Realist Chair, you are pragmatic and practical, considering the resources that you have available. You ask yourself questions like, “How can I make this work?” Then you use logic to turn an idea into a realistic action plan.

3. The Spoiler Chair 

The Spoiler Chair is where you look for what could go wrong. It could also be called the pessimistic mindset. This is the place where you scan the proverbial horizon for icebergs. It’s a hard-headed look for problems and potential pitfalls ahead of time.

This seat is where reality and dreams are given a good talking to about how they must navigate the road ahead together, if they wish to achieve anything at all! It’s a different kind of blue sky thinking. Though in this mindset, you’re looking up to spot the storms to avoid!

Although nonprofit decision-making is no child’s play, it certainly makes a whole lot of dreams come true. I’ve found Walt’s method incredibly helpful at many pivotal decision processes. Though one chair will do the job, it’s only the mindset we need to swap between!

Nonprofit Sustainability

Nick Wood

Nick Wood

Freelance Journalist & Author
Nick Wood is a freelance journalist and author. Specializing in the nonprofit Industry, digital media, and the travel sector. With years of experience working within the industry on the ground in the UK and further afield. Founder of light-on-light, a project addressing the stories of individuals and organisations making a positive and intentional impact on society. For enquiries, nickjohnwood@mail.com.