(A Review and a commentary on the book The Three Laws of Performance by Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan, Times Group Books)
Organisational transformation is a recurring and favourite theme among management writers and authors. This book under review by Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan belongs to this category of management literature and talks about “rewriting the future of your organisation and your life” by applying the “Three Laws of Performance.” The unique feature of the book is its practical orientation with very interesting examples which illustrates concretely how to apply the three laws to the rebuilding of our organisation and also our life as a whole.
Steve Zaffron is the CEO of the Vanto Group, a global consulting firm that designs and implements large-scale initiatives to elevate organisational performance. Zaffron has directed major corporate initiatives with more than three hundred organisations in twenty countries. Dave Logan is on the faculty at the Marshal School of Business at the University of Southern California and is a former associate dean. He is also a senior partner of Culture Synod, a management consulting firm.
This book was very much appreciated by many senior executives, entrepreneurs and practitioners who have applied and put into practice the laws and principles described in the books with very positive and concrete benefits and results. Sir Bob Read, former chairman and chief, Shell UK, states:
“For a person in a leadership or someone aspiring to take a leadership position this is a wonderful read. As a compendium of relevant experience it will be hard to beat”.
Marcio Rosa, former CEO of Telemar Rio says:
“This is an amazing book. It captures the principles behind applications and processes that were implemented with most of the 15000 employees I managed within Telemar. One year after the start of that process, the company successfully entered a growing and profitable new market. In my view without the ideas in this book, we never would have gotten there that fast. It was the most exciting adventure of my life.”
Natalie Cook, a four-time Olympian, Australian Beach Volleyball Team, gold medallist, Sydney, 2000, writes:
“By applying the Three Laws, I noticed an instant transformation in all areas of my life. In business, sport, and relationship, I was able to rewrite my future, which is now full of endless possibilities”.
Let us now examine what the authors of this book have to say on the three laws of performance.
The Principles of Great Performance
As the mind grows, it tends towards broad generalisations and universal laws and principles. Each mind draws its own generalisations and principles which may not be the same as that of others. However, if these laws and generalisations are helpful in enhancing the performance, wellbeing or effectiveness of human beings, then they are good and welcome. Zaffron and Logan present the following three laws as the key to high performance:
- How people perform correlates to how situations occur to them.
- How a situation occurs arises in language.
- Future based language transforms how situation occurs to people.
Let us look briefly at what the authors mean by the terms they use to describe the three laws.
How the Situation Occurs
The first law proposes that our performance depends on “How situation occurs to us”. What does it mean? “We mean something beyond perception and subjective experience“says Zaffron and Logan. ”We mean the reality that arises within and from your perspective on the situation. In fact, your perspective itself is part of the way in which the world occurs”. However, the “reality that arises within” is also a subjective experience. So in a simpler language we may say that our performance depends on how we experience events, situations, people and life as a whole. These experiences determine our beliefs and perceptions, which in turns affects our performance. If our experiences, beliefs and perceptions are negative, it has an adverse effect on our performance. Conceptually or theoretically this is simple common-sense. But the difficult challenge is how to apply it to bring about a change and transformation in performance from a nadir of low preformation to a peak of high achievement. According to Zaffron and Logan, the key to this change lies not in superficial change-management techniques, but in creating a deep change in the content of our experience, which leads to a lasting and uplifting transformation in our beliefs and perceptions. The authors illustrate the working of this law with a compelling example.
In a mining company in South Africa, Lonmin, the white executives treated the black workers with a sense of superiority and contempt. This experience determined the perceptions of workers. Laolong, one of the workers in the mines sums up the perception of the workers in the following words.
“We didn’t feel like people but something they brought in to do the work”.
“It was black versus whites, all the times.”
“I was angry all the time, I knew the future would be a constant fight”.
A local university team of researchers studied the perceptions of workers throughout the communities that surround it and concluded that the mine was a ticking time bomb of public rage. Regarding the condition of the company, the research team said: Teams and communications structures lacked rigor and consistency. Costs were rising, safety was declining, absenteeism was rising and the communities were stranding with 40 percent unemployment, drug addiction, and the HIV epidemic.
At this stage a new CEO, Brad Mills, enters with a determination to bring about a radical change and transformation in the company and the communities. As advised by consultants trained in Three Law, Mills decided to invite people critical to the success of the Lonmin turn around to an initial meeting. Mills and his team invited one hundred leaders from the company, tribes, unions and the community to a two-day meeting, not in a five-star hotel, but in a night club within the community of workers with all the marks of poverty and undernourishment. Mills introduced himself as the new CEO of Lonmin and said:
“I know there’s a lot that’s broken and I want to listen to that, so we can fix it together. But I am really here as someone committed to your success, the mine’s success, and the wellbeing of families and communities. I invited you to this two days to explore together in a new way. Obviously I’m American working for a London company and I’m not aware of all the difficulties you’ve had to deal with, but I want to know extensively about it. But I do know that we share one thing in common, our humanity. If we work together as human beings, we can work together to create something very exciting.”
When Mills asked the people, ”What is it you want me to know that’s not working?” One of the workers said “Brad, you know what would show us that you’re serious. Sleep in a hostel, with twelve mine workers so you know what it’s like for us.”. Mills said without a second of delay “I promise I’ll do that and kept his promise. Proceeding to the future, Mills asked them “what are the opportunities that can be seized if Lomin, the communities and the unions commit to new and powerful ways of working together”. And the people responded enthusiastically with images of a successful future like “Full employment”, “Hundred percent literacy”.
And this process which was experimented in hundred people was re-enacted in the entire community of 15000 people over the next four years. Both Management and the unions recognised the wrong attitudes in dealing with each other, “games they play” and agreed that in the future “relationship between management and unions should be based on:
* Total transparency-full discloser-total information.
* Respect for each other.
* Creating a new future.
*Engaging each other with integrity.
Sincerity of commitment displayed by Broad Mills and the power of integrity in his words ….expressed through powerful symbolic gestures like keeping the meeting in the community of the worker’s and sleeping along with workers in their hostels ….which are not mere stunts like the ones performed by many politicians to impress people, but conveyed his readiness to work with the people to bring about the change ….gave a different experience to people from what they were having and changed their perceptions and attitudes. And the result is a great transformation in the company and the community.
Productivity reached one-million-plus platinum ounces in concentrate for the first time in history. Lost-time and injuries had decreased approximately to 43 percent, a reduction that continues to be sustained and improved over time. For the first time, the community is actively supporting the company. The company and community have developed a powerful frame work and projects to forward sustainability.
The Clutter of the Unsaid
The second law is related to language: ”How a situation occurs arises in language”. According to Zaffron and Logan, untying the knots of language is a vital key to high performance. Language includes not only what is said in audible speech but “Unsaid and communicated but without awareness”. Behind the said there is the unsaid in the form of thoughts, feelings, fears, complaints and everything within us which we don’t want to express in speech.
But it is “communicated” because it can be felt and sensed by others, even with a little bit of inner sensitivity. Some of us may be fully aware of the unsaid, but others may not be conscious of it or only half-conscious. This “unsaid” is a clutter which is a great obstacle to high performance; it has to be brought forward made fully conscious and resolved. This doesn’t mean we have to blurt out indiscriminately whatever that goes on in our head, but those things in the unsaid which prevents the free and efficient flow of work or fruitful discussions or honest communication have to be brought to the light of consciousness and resolved.
A Japanese company, Polus Group is given as an example to illustrate the second law. This company was founded by Nakauchi, a highly capable, creative, and respected businessman, revered by his employees. Beginning with a small and humble business of selling bananas, Nakauchi expanded his enterprise to become multimillion-dollar conglomerate with the main focus on real estate and housing. One day Nakauchi suffered an incapacitating stroke and no longer able to lead his business. This sad incident created a crippling crisis in the company. All his sons and the managers and employees of the firm were depending more or less entirely on the leadership and creativity of its founder for guidance and inspiration and as long as Nakauchi was running the business, he gave his unfailing inspiration and guidance. And when he became seriously ill, the leaders and employees felt it a big and serious setback for the company. The language and communication between the leaders and employee of the company, both said and unsaid, got cluttered with defeatist overtones like “we are struck”, “future is uncertain”, “can we survive this crisis?”. Describing the essence of the clutter and how it was brought out, Zaffron and Logan state:
“Consultants helped people examine the unsaid. As the process continued, people went from disclosing what they thought but never said to discover what was lurking behind their thoughts and opinions when all was said and done. For each person, what they weren’t saying was some variant of the same thing: I’m doing the best I can but other people’s agendas are keeping what I’m doing from working. If only the founder were here, he would fix it, but he is not, so all I can do is just keep trying”.
For unravelling this obstructive tangle of language Zaffron and Logan suggest the following measures:
* Become aware of your persistent complaints about people and situations. Notice these cycles through your internal voice.
* Notice that these complaints are interpretation of facts, not facts themselves.
* See all four elements of the rackets the persistent complaints, the set way of behaviour, the payoff, and the cost.
* Probe into the situation by writing down everything you need to say to others, anything you need to forgive or be forgiven for, anything you need to take responsibility for, or anything you need to give up, including the complaints itself.
* Communicate what you discover to others in your work and life. Many people find that this action has a dramatic impact on performance.
In the Japanese company Polus Group, Zaffron and Logan describe how this process of bringing forward the unsaid has led to a breaking down of the excessive dependence of its leaders and the people on the founder and as a result a greater confidence in a future and manifestation of the leadership potential among the leaders of the company. And the thinking and conversation among the leaders of the group has progressed from maintaining the legacy of the founder to taking the company beyond the vision of its founders which was expressed by Homa, head of human resources of Polus Group reflecting the new born confidence. “I am going to put together people and process for living up to and going beyond, what our founder would have wanted.”
However, when the authors assert that “language is the key to performance” I think they are going too far. Language is only a partial outer expression of the inner condition of people. As the authors rightly point out there remains the “unsaid” behind the said, which means, the outer speech or language does not entirely express the inner condition of people but only partially. For a more effective resolution of the “unsaid and communicated without awareness”, the primary emphasis should be not on language but on the following factors:
- Increasing self-awareness through objective, scientific, honest, and detached self-observation of our inner movement, looking at it as a witness.
- Cultivation of right, positive attitudes towards people in thought and feelings and rejection of all negative feelings like resentment and jealousy.
- In the outer work life, building a habit and culture of frank and forthright discussion on what are the factors which are preventing a free, smooth and efficient flow of work and action and harmonious relationship and how to overcome them.
Interestingly the authors narrate a story which illustrates the second factor described above. An old Cherokee chief is teaching his grandson about life:
“A fight is going on inside me” he said to the boy “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves”.
“One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, self-doubt and ego.”
“The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith”.
“This same fight is going on inside you – and inside every person, too”.
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather “which wolf will win?”
The old chief simply replied “The one you feed”.
We may complete the last sentence and say “the one you feed with your choices and your thoughts, feelings, speech and action”.
Rewriting the Future
The last comes the third law “Future-based language transforms how situation occurs to people”. According to Zaffron and Logan, there are two types of languages: descriptive and generative. The first one describes the past events or the present facts and going a little further tries to predict the future through an extrapolation of the past and the present. The second one “creates new futures . . . . It doesn’t describe how a situation occurs; it transforms how it occurs. It does this by rewriting the future”.
Zaffron and Logan describe many principles and axioms for creating a new future and rewriting it in a future-based language. They talk about the “default future” which means the past which is trying to be the future or in other word all the impressions of our past experiences which are trying to mould our future. To create a new future this “default future” has to be effaced from our consciousness. “You can’t paint a picture on top of a picture on a canvas” says the authors “You can’t write a sentence on a page that is filled up with writing. You can’t create a future when there is already one coming to you. Before anything to be created there has to be a space of nothingness. The canvas must be empty; the page, blank; and the future that you were bringing into, somehow emptied out”. And on creating a new future, Zaffron and Logan, describe the following “specific actions” which leaders can take.
- Articulate the default future – what is the past telling you will happen.
- Ask, do we really want this default future.
- If not, begin to speculate with others on what future would
- Inspire action for every one; b) address the concerns of everyone involved and c) be real in the moment of speaking.
- As you find people who are not aligned with the future, ask, what is your counter proposal?
- Keep working until people align – when they say “This speaks for me” and they commit to it.
The authors describe a very illustrative example of this process of arriving at a vision of the future – in the Japanese Company Polus Group:
“The process in the room involved people making proposals, which were written and projected through a computer-generated screen. The facilitator would then check if anyone was not aligned with the proposal. Hands would go up and one of the people was then chosen at random. Whoever was called on then has to come forward with a counterproposal. The two would interact until they aligned. This process would continue until no hands went up. This interactive and lengthy process continued until the group had produced not only a new future but also a new business model that would deliver that future, and strategic outcomes in the year 2012 that would be the realization of that future. The outcomes included tangible measures of the future to be realized”.
This brings us to the question what should be the standard or criteria for arriving at the right kind of future. The main principle has to be the higher evolution of the organisation. Most of the organisations conceive their future in terms of new products, greater market share or profitability. But these things may not lead to the growth of the organization to a higher level of corporate life. To attain this higher evolution, the following possibilities can be explored:
- Is it possible for the organisation to move up towards a higher level of ideals, values and vision? For example, an organisation pursuing more or less exclusively economic goals may shift its focus of attention to social goals like for example greater contribution to the wellbeing and progress of the larger community or building the collective life of the organisation based on the values of liberty, equality and fraternity. In general, incorporating a deeper and higher social, ethical, aesthetic or spiritual content to the vision values and strategies of the organization is the path to its higher evolution.
- Awakening the unmanifest potentialities in people. There are two faculties which remain unmanifest or underdeveloped in the corporate work force: aesthetic and the intuitive. A conscious attempt through education and training to awaken these facilities can be of great help in the higher evolution of the organisation.
- Alignment with the future destiny of the human race. The discerning minds of prophets, ancient and modern, have perceived on evolution of consciousness culminating in a spiritual destiny. Modern prophets like Sri Aurobindo and Teil-hard-de-Chardia viewed the present condition of contemporary humanity as a crucial transitional stage in this evolution moving from an externalized material progress of the outer life to an inner progress in consciousness and towards a higher consciousness beyond the rational mind. As Sri Aurobindo points out “In the next great stage of human progress it is not material but a spiritual, moral and psychical advance that has to be made” and “whatever race, whatever country seizes on the lines of that new evolution and fulfils it, will be the leader of humanity”. In other words, whatever group like an organisation or a nation which makes the attempt to build its corporate life based on a vision and strategy centred around this spiritual evolution and destiny of humanity, will again an evolutionary advantage in the future world.