The Three Laws of Performance: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: February 29th, 2012 by bobmorris

The Three Laws of Performance: Rewriting the Future of Your Organization and Your Life
Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan
Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint (2011)

A 21st century version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave

In his comments in the “Editor’s Note” section that precedes the Introduction, Warren Bennis acknowledges that he was fascinated by Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan’s “gutsy aspiration to integrate an interdisciplinary slew of disciplines as disparate as brain science, linguistics, organizational theory, and complex adaptive systems with a few fundamental laws of human and organization behavior that could lead to palpable and profound change in both domains.” Frankly, I had no idea what to expect when I began to read this book but soon realized that Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan would be focusing on an especially serious challenge that most people face every day: How to develop the ability to “rewrite the future”? That is, “rewrite what people know will happen.”

In this brilliant book, they explain how Three Laws of Performance can help their reader to complete a natural shift “from disengaged to proactive, from resigned to inspired, from frustrated to innovative.” Part I (Chapters 1-3) “takes these laws one at a time, and shows how to apply them” and answers the question “Why do people do what they do?; then Part II (Chapters 4 and 5) “looks at leadership in light of the Three Laws” and answers the question “What are the interrelationships between language and occurrence?”; and finally, Part 3 (Chapters 6-8), “is about the personal face of leadership” and answers the question “How does future-based language transform how situations occur to people?”

Note: “What exactly does [the word] occur mean? We mean something beyond perception and descriptive experience. We mean the reality that arises within and from your perspective on the situation. In fact, your perspective is itself part of the way in which the world occurs to you. `How a situation occurs’ includes your view of the past (why things are the way they are) and the future (where all this is going”). Indeed, they assert, “None of us sees how things are. We see how things occur to us.”

Throughout their narrative, Zaffron and Logan urge their reader to keep in mind that the Three Laws of Performance really are laws, not rules, tips, stages, or steps. Each of the three “distinguishes the moving parts at play behind an observable phenomenon. A law is invariable. Whether you believe in gravity or not doesn’t lessen its effect on you.” Nor does any of the three lessen its effect on performance. The challenge is to understand them, to understand how there are interactions and even interdependences between and among them, and most important of all, how to apply them effectively, productively, and consistently.

Bennis and the others have their own reasons for thinking so highly of this book. Here are two of mine. First, Zaffron and Logan’s ideas about “rewriting the future” may at first seem (as Bennis’ suggests) “astonishing” but not after understanding exactly what they mean by it. Specifically, to “rewrite” is to overcome the quite normal tendencies of not seeing and hearing what is but, rather, only what we expect based on past “occurrences”; of protecting and defending what James O’Toole so aptly describes as “the ideology of comfort and the tyranny of custom;” of encouraging and, if necessary, forcing others to accept our determinations of what is and is not real; and of using descriptive language (i.e. that which accurately depicts the world as it once was or is now) rather than future-based language (also called generative language) to “craft vision, and to eliminate the blinders that are preventing people from seeing possibilities.” In essence, “rewriting the future” involves using future-based language that projects a new future that replaces what conventional thinking predicts, once a process of “blanking the canvas” has been completed. Zaffron and Logan explain that process on Pages 74-81. I also suggest re-reading the discussion of “Rackets” on Pages 45-47.

Another reason why I think so highly of this book is that, in Chapter 6 (“Who or What Is Leading Your Life?”) Zaffron and Logan share some especially interesting insights about “taking on some deep work – the kind of work that needs to be done for us to be leaders in our lives. And we really mean being a leader in all respects of our lives, including at work, in relationships, with family, with community, even with all of society.” As I worked my way through this chapter, much of the material resonated with material in another book that I also highly admire, Alan Watts’s The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. With regard to the subtitle, Watts explains that there is no need for a new religion or a new bible. “We need a new experience — a new feeling of what it is to be `I.’ The lowdown (which is, of course, the secret and profound view) on life is that our normal sensation of self is a hoax, or, at best, a temporary role that we are playing, or have been conned into playing — with our own tacit consent, just as every hypnotized person is basically willing to be hypnotized.  The most strongly enforced of all known taboos is the taboo against knowing who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego.”

This is precisely what Zaffron and Logan have in mind when stressing that each individual must first understand and then be guided and informed by the Three Laws before attempting to transform others. In the final chapter, they urge their readers to take on and then sustain seven commitments that, when made with integrity, will break the “performance barrier” in various conversation, first with one’s self and then with others. For example, commit to creating a new game by declaring that something is important. “That is what you are putting at stake, and it is what you are holding yourself accountable to. When others commit to the [new] game with you, they join you on the field.”

This what Jim Collins and Jerry Porras have in mind when advocating that an organization commit to what they call a Big Hairy Audacious Goal. As they explain in Built to Last, it is “a huge and daunting goal — like a big mountain to climb. It is clear, compelling, and people `get it’ right away. A BHAG serves as a unifying focal point, galvanizing people and creating team spirit as people strive toward a finish line…a BHAG captures the imagination and grabs people in the gut…Indeed, when you combine quiet understanding of the three circles with the audacity of a BHAG, you get a powerful, almost magical mix.”

Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan are world-class pragmatists. They have no illusions or delusions about how difficult the challenges will be for those who make the seven commitments. However, they offer this strong reassurance to their reader: “There are no circumstances in business or in life that you can’t handle with the Three Laws. No matter what hurdles you have to jump, challenges have to face, unfamiliar territory you have to cross, you’re ready for it. Play the game passionately, intensely, and fearlessly. But don’t make it significant. It’s just a game.”


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