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Book Review of The Three Laws of Performance: Rewriting the Future of Your Organization and Your Life

Originally published April 23, 2009

The Three Laws of Performance: Rewriting the Future of Your Organization and Your Life by Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan is an important book for information technology professionals, which is the audience this publication and this review address. However, it is not a book about software, hardware, or IT services in the usual sense. It’s not a book about fixing business problems, though plenty of problems and issues are discussed. It is not even a business book in the usual sense, since it is a work on technology – the technology of creating possibilities.

For example, the CIO is given a mandate to cut costs 10% across the board. Top people don’t leave; they just get discouraged and stop working. Quality suffers. Relations between IT and sales, finance, marketing, etc., deteriorate even further with the perception that the respective parties are not keeping their word. People try to look good and become righteous and justified. This is expressed in their words and deeds, whether explicitly or not. All politics, all the time is the pervasive way of being. This is reflected in their language. Instead of sharing, people hold on even tighter to their turf. The disconnection between language and what’s so in the business reality widens. The situation occurs as a Catch-22, no win, or the inside of a Dilbert cartoon. Performance suffers even further in spite of change management, thinking outside the box, and reorganization (i.e., layoffs). I do not even need to describe this scenario since it is so common. This is a default future in which IT departments – and most organizations – are already living (even before the latest economic dynamics), and it is not pretty.

So what to do about it? How to envision a future that works, put the past back in the past where it belongs, and produce breakthrough performance? The book begins with a case history of the South African Platinum Mining Company, Lonmin. Even though the mine was working okay according to select financial criteria, the context was one in which the situation was exploitation – largely of white managers exploiting local people of color. This was not sustainable either in the long or short term. Since operations could not be shut down for weeks while management retooled its thinking, the work had to be done in 3½ days over an extended weekend. The three performance principles of this text were used to craft a series of commitments to the employees and the community. How people perform correlates to how the situations occur to them. How a situation occurs arises in language. Future-based language transforms how situations occur to people. Obviously, this was not a one-shot deal. Breakdowns occurred and the commitments had to be renewed and recreated – repeatedly. The results are ongoing – it would be great to get an update – but dramatic enough to win an endorsement for the book from Nobel Laureate, Desmond Tutu and, just as importantly, to win a $100 million grant for community development from the World Bank’s Internal Finance Corporation.

Now, while the situation in many North American corporations is dysfunctional, it is unlikely that it is as bad as what was occurring in South Africa. However, the method is extendable. The integrity-performance paradox is at the center of the deeper issue. “Integrity” is defined as being whole and complete – like a wheel with all of its spokes in place. Without integrity, nothing works. The wheel gets bent and does not perform well. If operating with integrity is the foundation for performance and performance breakthrough, then why are people and enterprises so willing to sacrifice integrity and thus reduce performance in the pursuit of increasing performance? The authors provide a detailed analysis that cannot be repeated here. Key to the analysis is the distinction between keeping one’s word and honoring one’s word. Honoring one’s word is what happens when I miss my plane and I immediately call the client to say, “I know I said I would be there at 6 p.m., but I missed my plane. I will make good on the mess I have created by working this weekend so the final deliverable is not impacted [the client gets to say if the matter is urgent] or getting a colleague to fill in for me [if that is workable] or simply requesting an extension [if the matter is best managed in that way].” Honoring one’s word takes responsibility and actually restores one’s credibility. This is in contrast to trying to keep one’s word when the situation does not support it, resulting in finger-pointing (e.g., blaming the airline), giving reasons as if excuses were an acceptable substitute for the result (e.g., an on-time deliverable). This spins further as many inaccurately try to apply a cost-benefit analysis to honoring one’s word instead of keeping one’s word. This distinction is one of the most brilliant and useful parts of this work. Once again, “integrity” is not used in a moral way, though significant implications for morality can be derived.

An account of language is the wedge the authors use to open up access to breakthrough performance. Basically, the descriptive and performative uses of language are distinguished. “Vendor XYZ has the biggest data warehouse installation” is a descriptive use of language. It may or may not be accurate. It may be accurate today, but be leap-frogged by the competition next year. “Vendor XYZ’s data warehouse will enable you to reduce costs by 10% and improve incremental revenue 8% by cross selling and up selling” is a performative use of language. Such language does not in itself produce improved performance, but it lays down a commitment, a promise, of such performance, with which the systems behavior either aligns or does not. But the language calls forth and represents the possibility of such a result if the context is so aligned and as people live into the future represented by such a possibility. Obviously, there is still a lot of hard, detailed work outside of the language, but the language lays down the channels within which the effort becomes meaningful and results are attained (or not). Furthermore, there are some examples where language actually produces the entire result as when an agreement is reached that two companies will merge or one will acquire the other. That agreement is a lot like “I now pronounce you man and wife,” in which the form of words creates the relationship. Of course, mergers are like marriages in that the fun really begins at the point of the performative act in language.

This is actually the tip of the iceberg for implementing integrity-based leadership. Make no mistake, this is a book about creating the possibility of breakthrough performance. The foundation is integrity as defined here. Given the ongoing economic dynamics, the series of scandals coming out of the business community, and the always tenuous level of integrity (in any sense of the word) in Congress, the recommendation is to run, not walk, to get this book. However, one word of caution. The book in itself – as useful and well written as it may be – will not be enough for most individuals and enterprises. As a book, it risks becoming so many words and concepts, albeit useful ones. You will want to get an in-person sample of the training that is the deep structure of this work. Check out www.landmarkeducation.com for an urban location near you. If you represent a corporation and would like to bring this technology to your enterprise, it is probably best to inquire directly of one of the authors – szaffron@threelaws.com

  • Lou AgostaLou Agosta
    Lou Agosta is an independent industry analyst, specializing in data warehousing, data mining and data quality. A former industry analyst at Giga Information Group, Agosta has published extensively on industry trends in data warehousing, business and information technology. He is currently focusing on the challenge of transforming America’s healthcare system using information technology (HIT). He can be reached at LAgosta@acm.org.

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