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

(Remember, the default future lives at an experiential level. It’s underneath what we think and hope will happen.) Yet you (along with the rest of us) live as if that future is preordained. You live into your default future, unaware that by doing so you are making expansion of wealth (both material and in the well-being of people).

Each person assumes that the way things occur for him or her is how they are occurring for another. But situations occur differently for each person. Not realizing this can make another’s actions seem out of place.

We are merely pointing out that our actions relate to how the world occurs to us, not to the way that it actually is.

First Law tells us that, at the very least, you have to alter the way that market opportunity occurs to people. If it occurs as far-fetched, people’s actions will be detached, cautious, perhaps cynical and resigned. If the market opportunity occurs as doable, important, worthwhile,alignment around key commitments. Steve’s colleagues began with a program for the eighty top leaders of the company. In the course of three and a half days, Mattos and the managers were able to leave behind past issues and conflicts, focusing the team on the same picture.

“Not just the pressures on us, but how we did things in the past that were no longer working well.

He then asked, “What is it you want me to know that’s not working?” People brought up overcrowding, AIDS, unemployment, violence, unsafe streets due to lack of lighting, union anger at other unions, and how management doesn’t care about the workers. One man walked forward to the microphone and 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 you I’ll do that,” and wrote his promise on the flip chart, the sound of his writing echoing in the room. When he put the pen down, the walls of the nightclub shook with the applause from the crowd, although many in the room told us later they were certain he wouldn’t really do it. “No CEO had ever been here before, and no one would sleep here,” one attendee told us later. That night, Lonmin hosted a dinner and party. As the participants danced and drank, several white executives said, “I never knew how bad it is here,” their eyes darting to run-down buildings with little light in the streets.

I was living in a cocoon, unaware of what was going on here… and I’m committing to making this different in the future.” When emotions settled down, Mills brought up the next question: “What will happen if we don’t find a new way to work together?” And the next: “How can we know what that future might hold?” If nothing changes, then the future will resemble the past. He started by recounting the previous year’s statistics: “Sixteen people died last year in the mines … so maybe we’ll get a little better and only fourteen will die … but there will be more deaths than we want.” Another speaker said, “And seventy people will probably die of AIDS.”

Mills ended the meeting by saying, I’m committing myself and my organization to fulfilling this future that we’ve begun to articulate. I can’t do it by myself, and my organization can’t do it by itself, so we need you to match our commitment. If you are committed to creating this future, with others and me, there will be large sheets of paper on the wall by the door. At the top of the sheet it says, “I’m committing myself to creating a new future for Lonmin and our communities.” Sign your name on that sheet.

For Mills, the act of sleeping in a hostel was simple and powerful—in his words, “no big deal.” But Mills understood the power of symbols to shift how situations occurred to people, challenging the default future

“We couldn’t believe it,” one union representative said, “and we began to think we could actually trust this man.” Laolang said, “Mills gained so much trust that people were willing to try it his way and see if it could work.”

Management owned up to playing the “take it or leave it” card, crying poverty, using veiled threats, and reporting data selectively. Laolang’s union acknowledged that it organized sit-ins, used wildcat strikes, burned property, and didn’t tell management what it really thought because, in their words, “we don’t trust them.” As people described and admitted playing these games to the entire group, they started to laugh—both at themselves and, as they told us later, at the absurdity of playing games like this at all. They saw the default future, and they found it ridiculous.

Notice that attempts to change a situation often backfire—strengthening, rather than altering, how the situation occurs. Remember: whatever you resist, persists. Consider: What if you could do something about how situations occur—to you and everyone around you? What impact would this make in everyone’s performance?

The Second Law of Performance How a situation occurs arises in language.
For nearly six years I had no concepts whatever of nature or mind or death or God. I literally thought with my body. Without a single exception my memories of that time are tactual. I was impelled like an animal to seek food and warmth. I remember crying, but not the grief that caused the tears… . I was like an unconscious clod of earth. Then, suddenly, I knew not how or where or when, my brain felt the impact of another mind, and I awoke to language, to knowledge of love, to the usual concepts of nature, of good and evil! I was actually lifted from nothingness to human life.

Language is the means through which your future is already written. It is also the means through which it can be rewritten. For people at the Polus Group, and all of us, there’s good news in this insight.

Untying the knots of language begins with seeing that whenever you say something, other communication is carried along with it. We call this phenomenon the unsaid but communicated. Sometimes the sender is aware of the unsaid; often they are not. The unsaid is the most important part of language when it comes to elevating performance.

The unsaid but communicated includes (but is not limited to) assumptions, expectations, disappointments, resentments, regrets, interpretations, significance, and issues that occur as dangerous.

A racket has four elements. First, there is a complaint that has persisted for some time. A common one in marriages: “He’s late again!” (Notice that “he’s late again” swirls in the wife’s internal voice.) Second, there is a pattern of behavior that goes along with the complaint. The wife may act irritated, aloof, and withdrawn. (“I’m really mad and disappointed” echoes in her internal voice.) People are generally aware of these first two elements.

For some people, the pattern of behavior is so entrenched that others think that’s who he is.

Salter saw something of profound importance for performance. 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.

Further, Salter’s conversations—with himself and with others—reinforced that “Michael is headstrong and doesn’t listen.” How Jensen occurred for Salter blinded him there is the possibility of accelerating and elevating their performance level by clearing out the unsaid. When people see the Second Law in action, they are often able to let go of their righteousness and take a big step toward collaboration. They can sort out the unsaid together, in public—discarding the bits that hold people back, and thereby opening up space.
It takes courage on the part of the participants and intentionality on the part of the facilitator.

Become aware of your persistent complaints, about people and situations. Notice that these cycle through your internal voice. Notice that these complaints are interpretations of facts, not facts themselves. See all four elements of rackets: the persistent complaint, the set way of behaving, the payoff, and the cost. See your rackets at work. We all have them. Probe into the situation by writing down everything you need to say to others, including anything you need to say, 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 complaint itself). Communicate what you discover to others in your work and life. Many people find that this action has a dramatic impact on performance.
The Third Law of Performance Future-based language transforms how situations occur to people. The Third Law rests on a fundamental distinction: there are two different ways to use language. The first is descriptive—using language to depict or represent things as they are or have been. The test of good descriptive language is whether it accurately articulates the world as it is, whether people see the world rightly. Descriptive language is often used to look back, spot trends, and predict what will happen.

Future-based language, also called generative 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.

They were generating, in their speaking, a future worth living into, even when the situations and circumstances seemed gloomy and treacherous. Future-based language is generative in its ability to invent what didn’t previously exist. Churchill and Roosevelt’s passion and determination went far beyond motivational speaking. A motivational speech pumps up a crowd for an hour, then dissipates as life gets back to normal. Motivation makes people feel good about themselves, maybe even inspired. But those feelings don’t replace the default future that they’re living into.

To complete means moving an incident from the default future to the past. This process goes far beyond “getting closure” or “starting the healing process.” If you complete an incident, it no longer lives in your future. You remember it, and it can inform you, but it does not drive your actions. It also doesn’t color how situations occur to you. You are free of it, permanently. Think about your performance challenge. Is there anyone involved in the situation with which you feel distance? Perhaps any sense that something is off? From our experience, when people look, they know. What you’re seeing are incompletions—something that lives in your future, some baggage from the past. One dictionary definition of incomplete is “lacking a part or parts, not whole.” Another definition is “not concluded.”

As you continue to look for incompletions, look to see if anything triggers a sense of something missing, of distance, or of something that is not concluded. Some places you can look are resentments, regrets, integrity issues (such as broken agreements), lack of acknowledgment for your or another’s contribution, or participating in gossip (which diminishes the person who was the target of the gossip). You may become aware of an incident

Address what happened—what you decided, what you did or didn’t do, that’s between you and the other person. Because you’ve harbored it, you have to take responsibility for the diminishment of the relationship. It may even be to such an extent that you ask to be forgiven. Notice the use of language that is much more potent than descriptive: “I acknowledge taking responsibility for it.” The very act of saying this is an action: acknowledgment is created in the moment you utter these words. 3. Take whatever action is necessary, such as apologizing or giving up the racket. When we give something up, forgive, are forgiven, a new space opens up. Again, this part of the conversation requires generative language, such as “I’m giving up the grudge I’ve been harboring for years.” Creating a new future requires a constant commitment to being complete with everyone involved. Doing so creates and sustains a blank space into which the new future can be created.

The Declaration of Independence created the possibility of freedom, and people lived into that new future and pulled it toward them by picking up muskets and fighting. After the war was won, the invented future shifted from possibility to reality with the creation of the Constitution of the United States.

By declaring themselves family, the experience of family occurred in the room, and that experience became a critical element of the company’s future.

Future-based language doesn’t describe anything in the current reality. Rather, it creates a possible future to which the speaker is giving their word in the moment of speaking. For example, when a justice of the peace says, “I pronounce you husband and wife,” a marriage is created in the moment of speaking, and a new future is established for the couple. When people signed their names to the Declaration of Independence, the possible future we came to know as the United States of America was created. Take a moment and speculate about a future for yourself and others that would Inspire action for everyone involved Fulfill the concerns of everyone involved—yourself, your family, those you work with Be vibrant and compelling in the moment you say

Leadership Corollary 1, Leaders have a say, and give others a say, in how situations occur.

Participating in these projects was voluntary; that is, they were taken on in addition to each person’s current job. Imagine how their sense of what was possible in working at Reebok must have shifted. The project names alone capture some of Reebok’s spirit—competitive and fun—and show the spirit of partnership at work on the problems of execution. Fireman notes, “Each step of the way was discovery—discovery of unmet markets, unexpressed customer needs, unresolved problems, how to build an ethical company in an industry known for unethical labor practices, and discovery of leadership—the type that would be required to serve the customers and empower the employees.” People we interviewed in the company said they felt like pioneers. Even more remarkable was how people perceived their leaders, the future design process, and themselves. Looking back, Fireman summarizes his two times at the helm of Reebok: “I feel that there were a lot of people who achieved things that they wouldn’t have imagined possible in their life.”

“Without integrity, nothing works.”6 Integrity creates a condition of workability; without integrity, effectiveness is diminished and displaced by broken promises and lack of accountability.

“Cicero talks, and people marvel; Caesar talks, and people march.” Throughout time, when leaders speak, people are moved to action. This third corollary gives us insight into how ordinary people have become remarkable leaders by becoming the essence of the future.

It compels action, because it transforms how situations occur for people.
Consider also that a person lacking integrity lacks a single, integrated self. This idea is not new. The compilers of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy note the following: “Integrity is primarily a formal relation one has to oneself.”

12 The same article mentions “Integrity as Self-Integration.” In fact, this theme runs through the philosophical discourse on integrity—relating integrity to being whole and complete as a person.
13
Once we have an integrity-based relationship with our word, we can use conversations to build lives around this Self, resulting in greater effectiveness, purpose, capability, and satisfaction.

A person who is Self-led occurs as honorable, focused, confident without arrogance, wise, consistent, thoughtful, and dedicated. From different points of view, a Self-led person would be described as enlightened, integrated, or evolved.

Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself. —Leo Tolstoy

When how a person occurs to himself alters, everything else shifts as well.

I realized that suffering could be looked at as a choice, and that hit me like a bullet. I realized that I had chosen to suffer for the sake of my son, but that my sadness prevented me from giving him the thing that mattered most—a happy mother.” She continues: “My spirit soared. I could laugh. I decided to no longer be a victim of circumstances. It all changed, suddenly and dramatically.”

Ultimately, you need to be willing to appoint yourself the shogun in your own life. If you don’t, you turn that power over to others and to your circumstances.

When a master takes the stage, people stop what they are doing to watch. They know something may happen that people will talk about for years. Masters like Tiger Woods, Garry Kasparov, or Yo-Yo Ma do what occurs as impossible, yet the masters in their fields are not surprised by their performance. For them, it is a self-expression.

Leadership is about inventing something radically new, in concert with those who will implement it, and it can’t be done through a formula, steps, or a checklist.

Through that terministic screen, they see opportunities where others see chaos. They see system failures and possible fixes while others only complain that things aren’t working. Because they see the world through a terministic screen others don’t have, they do things others can’t do, or wouldn’t imagine doing.
From the Third Law, you’ll see that some (but really only a few) people talk generatively. Instead of merely describing, they use language to create new futures. You may notice that they’re using future-based language, grounded in declarations and commitments. You’ll see those rare individuals who listen for the future of their organizations, families, or groups to arise. You may resolve, and declare, that you are such a person.

Resolving problems means transforming how your situations occur to you and others. In reflecting on a situation that occurs as needing a performance boost, you might begin by asking (yourself and others), “What is working and what is not working in this situation?” Then, “Is there something that was done in the past to fix a problem that is now here as part of what’s not working?” Make a list of all the “business as usual” solutions that people in your industry would use. Or, if the issue is personal, what are the usual actions people take to try to resolve problems like the one you have?

Once we learn language, we can never again see the world without its influence.
conversations, particularly conversations based in commitment, spark action. In working with thousands of people on implementing the Three Laws, we have identified seven specific commitments that, when made with integrity, reliably break the performance barrier. Our last piece of advice is this: take on these commitments and let them guide you in the conversations that you have with others.

You make a new game when you declare that something is important. This is what you’re putting at stake, and it is what you’re holding yourself accountable to. When others commit to the game with you, they join you on the field. So use future-based language and declare what’s important. Say what’s not important. Who said you could do this? You did.

Sharing is allowing another to participate in what you’re experiencing.
The more you share your experience, and the more you make your commitments public, the more you get back. If you share your love for another person, your love isn’t lessened, it increases. The same is true with your experience of the Three Laws. The more you share it, the more your experience deepens, your insights take hold, and your capacity to achieve breakthrough results increases. Ideas shared grow and spread. Further, the more you share, the more the environment around you is shaped by the Three Laws, and elevated performance takes hold. So who do you share with? The people who matter to you and who you need to win the performance game.

You may find that you’re repeating the past, and you are. When something happens, you dip into The Future file and do what your record tells you to do. You do the same things over and over because you’ve put those files in your future. So let’s get beyond the filing error. If we emptied everything out from The Future filing cabinet—all the decisions we placed there to deal with what may happen—what would be left in that filing cabinet? Nothing.

People will resist you, because people resist new ideas all the time. Remember, it was the same for Galileo. Don’t take it personally. Resistance is like a thunderstorm: when it rains on you, you get wet—but it isn’t personal.
We say the real source of leadership is “future-based listening,” which is listening for what people really want and what really matters to them. As someone commented to us recently, “When you listen to people, they reveal what they want, and it’s remarkably similar to what others want. Then you don’t need to sell them on anything.”

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