Facilitating strategy using NLP

I was asked to facilitate a strategy session across the Association for Project Management’s (APM) best practice groups last week at their twice-yearly forum and was able to put many NLP tools and techniques to effective use.

Strategy seems to be one of those things that everyone talks about but we see little evidence of.  Perhaps, though we know that we should have a long term perspective, be it our own careers or the future state of our organisation, it is sometimes difficult to get past the problems of the here and now.  NLP is often used in counselling to help individuals who find themselves stuck in a problem situation, but can be used equally well in an organisational context.

One technique is called Future Pacing, and essentially we look to a point in the future and imagine ourselves there, looking back at a solved problem rather than have the associated difficulties stare us in the face. In this case, we went out to 2020 and imagined ourselves in a world where our strategic vision – ‘A world where every project succeeds’, was reality.

The knack here is to get the group of individuals to start to speak as-if they are in the future, ie using the present tense.  This as-if frame helps to create the illusion of the alternative reality.  My colleague from the APM board, David Hart, used this technique for a similar workshop in Belfast a couple of weeks ago and we built on success in getting buy-in to the outline strategy.  Here, however, I wanted to get much more input and pull out an action plan.

Starting with the end in mind, ie the vision, is a foundation of NLP and also good practice in project management.  We looked back at some of the milestones that might have occurred in the future past. Again, looking back helped to take much of the emotion out of some of the current situation from such a wide and active stakeholder group.

We reframed our problem, and any potential blame, into an outcome – a very useful NLP technique for problem solving and used widely by good facilitators.  One of the best examples of reframe is jokes, and there were many of these bouncing around the room.  Of course, enjoyment and laughter are great catalysts for a learning environment, so we kill two birds with one stone.

As well as creating a fun and humorous environment, it is also necessary to keep all the language positive.  One of the key behaviours in this respect is the optimist / pessimist duality.  For example, where I state, ‘every project succeeds’, others restated it as ‘where no projects fail’.  This has to be corrected on every occasion.  Much as when you ride a bike through a set of posts, or drive through gates in your car, it is essential to keep your focus on the gap rather than the problem, as your focus becomes your destination.  Hence, we do not talk of less failure, just more success.  (I expect this has been drilled into our Olympic hopefuls).

More than 60 of these behaviours / meta-programmes have been identified in NLP, and another key one in this workshop was addressing the big picture / detail dichotomy.  It is important to stress that no option of any of the 60 meta-programmes is more suitable for project management, but the most suitable option is context dependent.  Here, I was chunking everyone up to get the big picture, before chunking back down later on to put some details into an action plan.

We developed some original outcomes to plan programmes around before returning to the present to plan a way forward to achieve these outcomes.  As with any workshop, the output was not complete, but everyone came away with better understanding, fresh insights, a commitment to outcomes, and an idea of what had to go into their business plans for the next year to create that future.

There are many other techniques that an be bought into play with experience, including the use of command phraseology and tonality and use of Milton Model language to help distract the conscious brain.