The Underpinnings of Breakthrough Performance

Steve Zaffron, CEO of Vanto Group

Every company in every industry works under certain forces or laws that influence what that company can and can’t do. The ancients who attempted to fly by strapping feathered wings to their arms and flapping with all their might as they leapt from high places invariably failed. Despite their dreams and hard work, they were fighting against powerful forces of nature. Flight became possible only after they came to understand the relevant laws.*1

Just as understanding the relevant laws of gravity, physics, or probability theory make certain things possible—flight, building bridges, financial windfalls—there are laws that apply to the art and science of performance. In our recent book, The Three Laws of Performance, Dave Logan and I identify laws that address the underpinnings of effectiveness, achievement, and breakthrough results, both in business and our day-to-day lives.

This story from Philip Roth seems apropos: “Suppose you and I went up to the ballpark together, and there’s a guy next to us with his kid. And he was saying to his kid, ‘Now, what I want you to do is watch the scoreboard. Stop watching the field. Just watch what happens when the numbers change on the scoreboard. Isn’t that great? Now, do you see what just happened up there? Did you see what happened? Why did that happen?’ And you say, ‘That guy is crazy.’ But the kid imbibes it and he goes home and he’s asked, ‘How was the game?’ And he says, ‘Great! The scoreboard changed thirty-two times and Daddy said last game it changed only fourteen times and the home team last time changed more times than the other team. It was really great! We had hot dogs and we stood up at one point to stretch and we went home.’

“Is that politicizing the game? Is that theorizing the game? No, it’s having not the foggiest idea in the world what [the game] is.”

We have much the same fogginess about what actually causes breakthrough performance, or causes anything for that matter. Most of what we’re familiar with about what causes what we’ve learned from a “cause and effect” model. Causality is a very solid, respected, and useful way of looking at the world. It has produced an enormous amount of valuable information, in terms of what shapes outcomes and behavior. However, if we are aware that causality is just one model for understanding the world and that it is sometimes but not always useful, we are more likely to use it when it works, and not when it doesn’t.

There’s another model that’s also powerful in terms of shaping outcomes and behavior. This model has the additional dimension and advantage of giving us access to the very source of performance. We call this the “correlate” model, and it brings us to the first law of performance we address in the book: Performance is not always caused by or an effect of something, but rather is correlated to—or in a dance with—the way the world shows up for us. To say it again, performance is a result of how the world (or a situation, or a circumstance, or a person) occurs for us.

From time to time in Vanto Group’s consulting engagements, I’ll bring along a tennis ball and ask someone who considers themselves unathletic or uncoordinated to help demonstrate this first law. I say to the person, “I’ll throw the ball; you catch it and return it to me.” I toss the ball and the person attempts to catch it, but they pretty much fumble each time. Then after a few throws I say, “We’re now going to change the game—it’s no longer catching the ball, the new game is to call out which way the ball is spinning as it comes toward you.” For the first two or three throws, the person doesn’t catch the ball when I toss it. He or she calls out which way it’s spinning accurately, but the ball just lands on the floor—and they go after it, pick it up, and lob it back. After a couple of throws, the person begins naturally catching the ball, as well as calling out which way it was spinning—not even aware, really, that the ball is being caught time after time.

In both versions of the game, the person’s performance is correlated to how the world occurs for him or her. In the first part, behavior was correlated with the thinking of being uncoordinated, in the second, to being competent or able. Performance in both situations is related to one thing only—how the world occurs for a particular person.

The second law of performance has to do with the role of language. Oversimplified, the perspectives of “catch this ball, which we already know we can’t catch” and “calling out which way the ball is spinning, which we know we can do quite well” (same ball, same speed) lead to two totally different outcomes. Each perspective is constituted in language—it is in language that we articulate, define, and shape reality. It is the conversation in each game that yields completely different performance outcomes.

We carry such conversations around with us about how things are—how we or our corporations measure up, what’s possible and what isn’t, how things work, what we know to be true. When we say that things are a particular way, we become constrained and limited to what that reality allows—it’s just “the way it is.” To coin a phrase, it becomes an “is world,” and an “is world” has a particular design to it—it’s solid, fixed, and we have to adjust to it. We spend much of our lives struggling with “the way things are,” rather than savoring the malleability that a constitutive view of language can lend to our world. How things occur—occurring—is a linguistically based phenomenon. Language is integral to accessing breakthrough performance. But as posed in the first law, our actions are not correlated to an “is,” fixed, or static world; rather they are correlated to an “occurring” world.

The third law of performance has to do with future-based language. When we know it is our conversations that constitute our world, it shifts our relationship to what’s possible. It puts us in the driver’s seat. The shift doesn’t necessarily get rid of the lens or filters or mindsets per se, but fixed notions, old assumptions, old realities stop defining what’s possible and what’s not. We most commonly use and think of language in an experiential, descriptive, or representational way—as a response to the world, a process of fitting or matching our words to the world as we know it. Let’s call it a word-to-world fit. This use of language allows for certain outcomes, but not others. In a future-based model, language is used in a generative or contextual way, and is more than a response to the world. It yields completely different outcomes and is actually what brings the world into being—a world-to-word fit. In this model, language is both what gives rise to the world and what gives access to what is in that world.

With that premise, we say that reality, conditions, and circumstances of the future do not exist as facts, but rather as a product of our conversations. Assuming that’s the case gives us a certain dominion, a direct and powerful access to shaping performance, to shaping outcomes. This generative, future-based model dynamically and actively pulls for the fulfillment of whatever future we are out to create.

Take Akio Morita, former chairman and cofounder of Sony, who said he would change what “Made in Japan” means. He wasn’t just interested in his company’s performance or a particular product line, but a shift in thought globally as well as in his own country. “Made in Japan” at that time was associated with cheap, poor-quality items. He redefined the phrase to embody leading-edge technology, quality, and the highest levels of customer satisfaction on a worldwide scale. He also created new futures for Sony’s products; he spoke of listening to songs while walking about at a time when nobody believed in the marketability of a tape player that couldn’t record—the Walkman was the result. History is strewn with examples. Louis Pasteur set out to demonstrate that microscopic organisms caused disease and propelled medicine into a new era; the writers of the Magna Carta (by establishing the principle of limited government) altered the world stage for human rights; Kennedy’s declaration made manned space exploration a reality.

There’s something very important in these examples—each represents a future not existing at the time. There’s a certain declarative or generative language that was used in each case and the game unfolded in a new direction based on what a person or group of people said. A declaration made by an individual or group isn’t him or her or them speaking “about” something, but is the thing itself—it’s language that actually creates something, brings something forth—the declaring into existence an intention, a stand, something with an impact, a space of possibility.

Possibility is not real at its origin—it’s something we create as real, and then stand for as a reality. And when possibilities such as those mentioned above are created and articulated as a future, the terrain of the present occurs differently for people. Future-based language, in other words, contains the direction and momentum in which and for which things move. It folds the future back into the present, and when that happens people’s actions become correlated to that future and their performance alters in the present. These three laws are about rewriting the future now, and also knowing we have the wherewithal to do that ongoingly.

Visit to find out more about The Three Laws of Performance by Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan.

*1 Adapted from Introduction, Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book That Will Change the Way You Do Business, HarperCollins Publishers, New York, 2003.