The Three Laws of Performance

Rewriting the Future of Your Organization and Your Life


Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan

Jossey-Bass, 2009, 220 pp.   ISBN 978-0-470-19559-8


Steve Zaffron is the CEO of Vanto Group, a consulting firm specializing in organizational performance.  Dave Logan is on the faculty at the Marshall School of business at the University of Southern California.  This book introduces a new language and a fresh way of understanding situations in order to re-envision the future for an organization.  The ideas are illustrated by several extensive case studies.  I found the case studies convincing and the principles somewhat difficult to absorb.


"Everyone experiences a future in front of them, even though few could articulate it. … This future lives at a gut level.  We know it's what will happen, whether we can give words to it or not.  We call this the default future…."  "You … live as if that future is preordained.  You live into your default future, unaware that by doing so you are making it come about."  And regardless of management intervention, the default futures stay the same.  But transforming the situation can lead to a dramatic elevation in performance.  (Introduction)


Part I.  The Three Laws in Action

1. Transforming an Impossible Situation

"The First Law of Performance.  How people perform correlates to how situations occur to them."  (6) 

When we do something, it makes sense to us and how we understand a situation (how it "occurs" to us) is the way we think everyone understands it.  But how it "occurs" to us depends on our view of the past and the future.  "Our actions relate to how the world occurs to us, not to the way that it actually is." (7)  Performance always relates to how a situation occurs.  (9) 


"The default future is a function of how situations occur to all of the people involved."  But most management efforts do not consider this.  Most change efforts fail.  If management's proposals seem far-fetched or futile, the people will be detached and cautious.  To get change in performance, you must alter how situations "occur" to people. 


To get action, you must transform how the situation occurs to people using a systematic series of conversations among leaders.  Once situations occur in new ways, people can move beyond mere compliance to accountability and providing leadership.


"Find people whose actions make no sense to you.  Ask them questions, mostly open-ended, that provide insight into how those situations are occurring to them.  Keep going until you can see how their actions perfectly fit how the situation occurs to them. … Become aware of how your own performance correlates with how situations occur to you."  (29-30)


2.  Where is the Key to Performance?

Having the right knowledge does not translate into doing.  The key to performance lies in the complex working of occurrence. 

"The Second Law of Performance.  How a situation occurs arises in language."

How the world occurred to Helen Keller, once she learned language, shifted more dramatically than we can imagine.  Nothing had meaning until she had language.  Language gives us a past and a future.  It allows us to dream, plan, and set goals.  "Language is the means through which your future is already written.  It is also the means through which it can be rewritten." (38) 


You communicate much more than you say.  The unsaid is the most important part of language in regard to performance.  The unsaid includes assumptions, expectations, disappointments, resentments, regrets, interpretations, etc.  The unsaid is hidden but very important.  You can often perceive what people are communicating but not saying. 


There is also much that is unsaid and communicated without our awareness.  This part of language is outside our control.  "Until we find leverage on this part of language, the future is written and can't be altered."  "The process starts with becoming aware of what people aren't saying but are communicating." (40)  When people are unaware of the unsaid and the knotted language determines their behavior, there is no space to create anything new. We must move issues into the light of discussion, examine them in public, and clean out the closet to open up space. 


Most of the time the inner voice repeats old thoughts, including rackets.  A racket consists of four elements: a complaint that has persisted, a pattern of behavior that goes along with the complaint, a payoff for having this complaint continue, and a cost of this behavior.  The cost and the payoff are unsaid.  1. He's late again.  2. She's irritated, aloof, withdrawn.  3. She gets to be right.  4. But she loses closeness with her husband.  The complaint can be a disguise for something deeper, such as a way of controlling a situation or avoiding being dominated.  "You'll have more power over a situation when you can label something a racket or can identify that what holds you back has something to do with how a situation occurs to you."  (47)  A racket is at work when people act resigned and detached, not enjoying their work or their colleagues.


Look at your own performance challenges.  Can you see a racket at work?  What complaints have persisted?  What do you get out of having it continue?  Do you get to be right?  Make others wrong?  Be justified?  Then look at the cost--it's usually some combination of love, health, happiness, and self-expression.  Get out what is unsaid and deal with it.  (50) 


[The above is probably worth the price of the book.  dlm]


"When something is lurking in the unsaid, it has the flavor--the occurrence--of being descriptively true.  But it's nothing more than language--constructed and changeable." (53)  When it is seen and discussed it beings to loosen the grip of absolute certainty that makes workplace conflict so entrenched.  Complaints are interpretations of facts, not facts themselves.  Persistent complaints don't reside in reality but in the unsaid language where they look like reality.  Giving voice to the unsaid creates space to choose a new direction. 


"Most rackets begin with a complaint over which the person feels no sense of power. …disclosing the racket will bring you back to that complaint and allow you to deal with it in a way that will give you a sense of power." (58) 


"Rewriting the future begins with shifting how a person occurs to himself." (61)  "The key to performance lies in language.  In particular, dampeners to performance live in the unsaid, especially in the unsaid and communicated but without awareness." (62)


3. Rewriting a Future That's Already Written

"The Third Law of Performance: Future-based language transforms how situations occur to people."

"Future-based language…has the power to create new futures, to craft vision, and to eliminate the blinders that are preventing people from seeing possibilities.  It doesn't describe how a situation occurs; it transforms how it occurs.  It does this by rewriting the future." (69) 


It's not how much money you have that makes you happy or sad, but what you expect to have, what you think the future is going to be like, compared to the present.  You are influenced by your expectation of the future, not the actual future.  And you tend to see the default future as a projection of what happened in the past.  "Future-based language projects a new future that replaces what people see coming.  "Rewriting your future alters how situations occur in the present." (73)  "…a created future isn't a done deal, either.  What we invent is a possibility to which we commit our entire being." (81-2)


Creating a new future with a large group of people attempts to displace nonproductive conversations with conversations that establish a vibrant future that people are eager to bring about.  It creates a sense of urgency and people's actions correlate to it. (85)


The second and third sections of this book deal with Rewriting the Future of Leadership and Mastering the Game of Performance.  The book is full of deep change principles.  But this first part seems like a rich and complete book in itself.  dlm 


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Your comments and book recommendations are welcome.