Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Transforming our Performance: A Review of The Three Laws of Performance

Why did your father behave the way he did? Why do your mother or child or your spouse act the way they do? Why does your boss say and do the things the does? Why do you behave and act the way you do, even if you don’t want to act that way? Why do organization and corporation function in the way they do? Psychologist, management experts and philosophers have sought to explain human behaviour in innumerable ways. There are plenty of theories and systems of thought to explain and understand the way we and people around us act and do things. But the problem with these theories and concepts is precisely this: they explain and help us to understand but don’t allow us a concrete, hands-on access to alter the behaviour and action of people or us. They give us ‘tips and strategies’ to ‘fix’ the problems.

The Three Laws of Performance: Rewriting the Future of Your Organization and Your Life by Zaffron and Logan is not a theoretical book or a book giving ‘tips and strategies or solutions’ to ‘problems’. Most of the times, Zaffron and Logan say, ‘the problem-solution’ mode of thinking doesn’t work. The reason they say lies in what they term ‘the problem-solution mass’ where the solution to a problem becomes an additional problem.  The example they give is a youngster who feels lonely and frustrated and thinks that marriage will ‘solve’ the ‘problem of loneliness’. However, after marriage, what really happens is that he has two problems on his hands: loneliness and marriage! He tries to ‘fix’ this by raising a family and how he has three problems on his hand: loneliness, marriage and children! He tries to ‘fix’ it by ‘divorce’ or an extramarital affair and now he has one more problem in his life! The answer lies in ‘transforming’ rather than finding solutions to the problems.

The laws are not ‘ideas, strategies, principles or theories’: they are ‘laws’ like the law of gravitation. Knowing these laws help not just to explain but also transform the performance of a person or an organization, that is, rewrite the future of that person or organization. That’s the incredible power of this book.   Let’s look at the three simple laws in brief.

The First Law: How people perform correlates to how situations occur to them.

The law is very simple and yet we simply have no idea how deeply it affects our life and the life of the organization. The most important words here are ‘occur’ and ‘correlate’. The word ‘occur’ indicates that it is NOT what situation or a person really IS but how it OCCURS TO US that determines our behaviour. For instance, if we see a situation or person as threatening, our actions will be correlated to our perception of threat IRRESPECTIVE of the fact whether it IS threatening or not.  

Speaking from my own experience, my mother ‘occurred’ to me as a person who has treated my father badly and as a person who did not care for me at all. After I was able to distinguish that this is how my mother occurred to me and that was NOT how she WAS, great bitterness and anger towards her vanished. This realization transformed my behaviour towards her so much that I don’t fight with her at all after this. When this bitterness and anger and fights disappeared, there was unprecedented peace and affinity in my life. In fact, before this realization, when my psychotherapist had asked me to tell him ‘three good qualities’ of my mother I could not even tell him one!  So much was the anger and resentment I was carrying around.

How situations or person occur to us is closely dependent on Zaffron and Logan term as ‘default future’.  Default Future, according to the authors, is our future which we SEE as certainly coming unless something dramatic and unexpected happens. This ‘default future’ does not include the inevitable things like death or ageing. It includes the things like ‘how your evening will turn out’ or what you will be doing tomorrow, unless something unexpected happens for instance. We know this future at the gut level. If we know we are going to meet someone we love in the evening, our present becomes something else and if we know that she or he has changed the plan our present becomes something else. In fact, it is not our past that controls our life; it is our ‘default future’ which controls our life. Our present moment, our activities in the present are CORRELATED to how our FUTURE OCCURS to us this moment. That is, our present way of being and acting is a function of our ‘default future’. If we see in the morning when we wake up that it is going to be ‘the same routine day’ in our default future, our actions will be correlated to this perception. If we receive a phone call informing us of something totally unexpected, our morning changes for better or for worse. Imagine, a phone call informing us that we have won something by the sale scheme we got yesterday while shopping. Or imagine a call telling us about our application for something has been turned down. It changes our present way of being and acting.

What applies to us as individuals applies for the institutions and organization. The way people in the organization are working at present is correlated to their ‘default future’. If it is bleak and uninspiring, people’s activities will be correlated to this perception.

The question which comes to our mind now is HOW a situation (or a person) occurs to us the way it does?  What made my mother occur to me the way she did? This brings us to the second law of performance.

The Second Law: How a situation occurs arises in language.

Simple again. How my mother occurred to me was based on what I kept SAYING to myself over and over again in my mind to myself or to her openly. I kept on saying, ‘she does not care for me or for my father. She treats him badly’. Remember this saying was not always conscious, it was often at the ‘gut level’.  I ran this conversation repeatedly and every time I repeated it my anger went up exponentially. My feelings, expectations and beliefs are nothing but my conversations with myself and they determine how someone occurs to me. If I keep saying, as I did, that this is an ‘arranged marriage’ and there is no space for love in it, there wasn’t any.

Conversations are verbal and nothing is ‘just words’. Our feelings and emotions are correlated to our words.  The ‘default future’ is a conversation we have with ourselves at the gut level. If you look at the conversation I had about my mother ‘she does not care for me at all and she treats my father badly’, you will realize that it started in the PAST, and that it uses language to DESCRIBE what my mother IS. This is a past-based use of language and it is mostly ‘descriptive’.  In this use of language situation (or a person) ‘IS’ the way it is. When I describe something by saying it is the way it is, I m speaking from my past experience. For instance, if I say, as I have said often, ‘the most of the teachers in the colleges and universities are not really eligible for the job’, that is how I will see them, that is, this is how they will occur to me and how I behave with them is correlated to how they occur to me.

Zaffron and Logan call this ‘reality illusion’, the illusion that reality IS the way it OCCURS to us. It is the illusion that reality is ‘fixed’ and is independent of our conversations. . This is similar to what structuralists and poststructuralist philosophers (under influence of Heidegger) have been pointing out. That doesn’t mean, they point out, there is no ‘reality’ ‘out there’, but they emphasize that we cannot access it without language. My reality illusion was ‘this is how my mother is’. When we realize that there is no ‘fixed and stable’ reality existing independently of our conversation, reality becomes ‘malleable’ to us. We can now ‘rewrite’ our future.

Now if our performance is correlated to how situation occurs to us and how a situation occurs to us is due the language we use to talk about it to ourselves with others, how can we transform our performance? We can transform our performance by transforming our language (not ‘changing’ it mind you, this is not a book about ‘positive thinking’) and consequently transforming the way the situation occurs to us.

Most of our conversations are past based. Our complaints, our expectations, our intentions, our communication strategies that we use to get results all are based on our past.  There is nothing wrong with this, except for the fact that most of us put them into our future most of the time.  Zaffron and Logan call this ‘filing error’. The stuff that should go into the box file labeled ‘past’ should go into that file; however, it goes into the file labeled ‘future’.  My conversation,’ mine is an arranged marriage and there is no scope for love’ came from some past conversations; however, by putting it into my ‘default future’, it controls my present. I don’t see any scope for love to exist at present. The ‘filing error’ makes me see my marriage as a closed space. There is no possibility of love here. I can see a possibility only when I put my past based conversation to where it belongs to the file called past only then can I see some ‘space’ some possibility in my default future and hence in my present as my present. This practice of rectifying the ‘filing error’ by putting the files from my past back into my past instead of my default future is called ‘completion’. This completion opens up a blank space from which new possibility can be created. How can I create a new possibility?

The Third Law: Future-based language transforms how situation occur to people.

By declaring your commitment to create a new possibility and keeping your word, you can create new future from the cleared space in the ‘default future’. The future based speech acts like, ‘I will do………………’, ‘I will create’ or ‘I declare the possibility of being…………..’ actually can CREATE new future. If you don’t believe this, just look at your past. When I was a very young child I said to my self, ‘I am not wanted, I am unwanted’ and I became ‘unwanted’ in my eyes. People said they loved me but as I saw myself as ‘unwanted’, I did not believe them.  I thought they were manipulating me. Here was a classic ‘filing error’; I was putting my past based conversation into future. When I dropped this conversation, I no longer feel ‘unwanted’. I can sense that people want me and love me, in their own ways.

But the statement ‘ I am unwanted’ is actually nothing but a speech act. A verdict that I passed on myself: I was the judge, the jury, the advocate and the culprit at the same time. I BELIEVED in it, it was ‘TRUTH’ to me. If this decade old statement determined all my past, a speech act based in future can create my future.

The future based language, or what Zaffron and Logan call, ‘generative language’ is not an empty ‘ positive thinking’ as it comes from the space in default future cleared up by putting past into past, it comes out of a perception of possibility.  Most of the ‘positive thinking’ fails because one does not SEE POSSIBILITY in this thinking. If I SEE myself sitting in front of a hungry lion, no amount of positive thinking can actually CONVINCE me that I won’t be eaten, unless I see that it is actually chained to the tree.  No completion (rectifying the ‘filing error’), no possibility, no possibility, no new future.

Zaffron and Logan make a very interesting use of the term ‘integrity’, which is at heart of creating a future. According to Logan and Zaffron, ‘integrity’ has nothing to do with ‘ethics’ or ‘morality’ as it is commonly understood. It has nothing to do with right or wrong. It has everything to do with ‘workability’ in our life. Integrity, according to the authors, means keeping your word, honoring your word. If you don’t keep your word, the work cannot be done. If you cease to honour your word, people will be even quicker to cease to honour it. Integrity, according to Zaffron and Logan, is ‘being whole or complete’. A chair with one leg missing has no workability; a wheel with one spoke missing has no workability. Only when it is restored can there be any workability in life. A chair with a broken leg is not ‘bad or wrong’, a wheel with a broken spoke is not ‘bad or wrong’, it simply doesn’t WORK.  
The key to rewriting a new future is by using future based language and with integrity.

This is a book about results and not about ideas. This is a book which leads to action. Reflections and insights are usually dime a dozen. This is a book which is not concerned with ‘explanation’ or ‘understanding’, but with performance: as a leader, as a father, as a teacher, as a doctor, as a brother, as a daughter, as a friend, as an employee, as an employer, as a businessman and as anyone. The book, the authors tell us, can be our coach in this game of life. If we sit and argue with our coach about theoretical niceties, we won’t be on the court. So I recommend this book about anyone who wants to act effectively and powerfully so as to get the results one wants. So get hold of a copy and get on the playground!

Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan. Three Laws of Performance: Rewriting the Future of your Organization and your Life, San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2009
Distributed in India by the Times Books, Rs. 395