In NLP Practitioner courses, and countless books, we are taught that our goals need to meet certain ‘well-formedness’ conditions if they are to stand a chance of happening.
But as usually taught, there is something vital missing from these conditions, and this article is here to fill in the gap.
In NLP, goals are described as ‘well-formed’ if they can be:
- Stated in positive terms
- Defined and evaluated according to sensory-based evidence
- Initiated and maintained by the person who desires the goal
- Made to preserve the positive by-products of the present state
- Appropriately contextualized to fit the ecology of the surrounding system.
(Source: Encyclopedia of Systemic Neuro-Linguistic Programming
and NLP New Coding by Robert Dilts and Judith DeLozier)
You’ll see this list, perhaps with minor tweaks, in pretty much every NLP Practitioner course manual, and most books on NLP.
With every well formed outcome checklist that I’m aware of, though, there’s something missing, and it’s pretty vital. World events in recent years, starting with the COVID pandemic and climate-related disasters like bushfires, and followed by Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, have really pointed up this gap.
What’s Missing From Well-Formed Outcome Conditions? Resilience!
I’m old enough to have lived through the 1970s, when economic growth in Western countries had something of a shock in the shape of the oil crisis. But by the 80s, when a lot of what’s now taught on NLP Practitioner courses was codified, things had settled down, and we pretty much expected things to go on as they were, just gradually making progress through economic growth and technological development as the world become increasingly interdependent, stable, and globalised.
The well-formedness conditions for outcomes reflect this outlook. They presuppose that the environment is a fairly stable system in which you can act to achieve your goals. Even the final ecology check, which looks at the relationship between the environment and the desired outcome, is really about the effect that achieving the goal has on the environment, rather than the effect that changes in the environment might have on the outcome.
The general 80s and 90s assumption that we have a stable environment, in which we can get on with the rational pursuit of ever greater efficiency, was reflected in articles and books like Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and Thomas Friedman’s The Lexus and the Olive Tree. This started to look very like complacency when 9/11 upended these assumptions in 2001.
The same assumptions of ongoing stability reflected in the logistics industry serving manufacturing and retail with the Just-in-Time inventory system, in which raw materials and components arrive just in time to meet production demands, so that companies minimise the costs of holding stock. The system works wonderfully, and gives companies a profitable edge over less efficient rivals – as long as suppliers can anticipate demand accurately, and more importantly, can keep deliveries coming without interruption.
If they can’t, you get shortages and supply chain breakdowns. The ability to adapt to disruptions and changing conditions was sacrificed in favour of efficiency, so when bad things happen, you’re screwed.
In recent years we’ve had massive disruptions: Covid 19, climate emergencies that will keep coming back, and now Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, with the resulting shortages of energy in Europe and food supplies in Africa and the Middle East.
In retrospect, decisions that seemed rational when it was assumed that things will stay the same seem foolish. This is true at the level of nation states (like Germany becoming heavily reliant on Russian gas supplies, or the UK allowing its gas reserves to run down, or cutting the spare capacity in the National Health Service from 15% to 5%) right down to individual decisions (interest rates are low, we can afford to take out a big mortgage – oh no, now the rate has nearly doubled).
We Need a New Well-Formedness Condition
So I’m proposing that the well-formed outcome conditions as generally taught in NLP need an extra condition:
“6. Resilient to potential changes.”
The kinds of questions this condition would prompt when considering a desired outcome could include:
- What could go wrong?
- What conditions might change that would affect the outcome? (finances, personal health, legal framework, social mores, energy and resource availability, climate change, etc)
- How will you build resilience into your goal?
These are just a first draft – what do you think? Let us know in the comments below.
Check out my resources for NLP Trainers – they’ll save you huge amounts of time and effort when you’re designing your courses!
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