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.
You may also have come across the list adapted into a memorable acronym, like my own ‘S.Y.D.E.R.‘ or Jenny Ainsworth‘s POWER Goals.
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.
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© 2022, Andy Smith. All rights reserved.
Very interesting thoughts Andy.
It highlights some of the limitations of the NLP goal model and reminds me of my days spent doing risk assessments, contingency and disaster recovery planning as a software developer.
Our approach was to split the risks into generic risks and project specific risks which we would give more of our attention to preparing for.
What could go wrong ? Or what could affect the outcome ? are both very valid questions which need to be asked.
My only concern (having some idea of how the unconscious mind works) is how do you plan for an event without risking manifesting it ?
Given that intention = (focus + will) and where our attention goes, so our energy flows, how do we give our attention to the event without energising the thought ?
Something I learnt from NLP and hypnosis community is that: 1.) when you name something you make it real; 2.) when you describe it, it comes alive; and 3.) the more you keep thinking about it, the more real it becomes until it takes on a life of it’s own. This seems to describe both how we learn through repetition acquiring our beliefs and values for better or worse. It also describes in many cases how we manifest things into our lives.
With that in mind I’m wondering if it would
be useful to ask the following questions :
What could affect the outcome that I can’t directly control ?
How could it affect the outcome and how could I reduce the impact ?
Am I comfortable with the risk ?
Just thinking out loud and putting my six pence in.
I hope it’s useful.
Thanks for those useful question ideas Giles!
I’m skeptical about some aspects of that ‘manifesting’ thing – for me it gets a little close to the ‘law of attraction’ (my thoughts on that here) and the idea that ‘you can’t afford the luxury of a negative thought’.
As it turns out, researchers have found that being aware of obstacles to your goal – and planning how to overcome them – makes it more likely that you’ll achieve your goal, versus just having positive fantasies about achieving it:
Andy, interesting gap. I would fill from theory of self-organising systems, should I know such.
As I don’t, from Permaculture (design of sustainable systems): robustness can be ensured by a two rule – Each element of a design has at least three (3) functions / purposes; Each significant function must be supported by at least two (2) elements.
And to really bring it home to the subconscious, the horizontally structured Win/Win Agreement structure from “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R Covey. Explicitly five parts.
Desired Result; Guidelines; Resources; Accountability; Consequences.
In talking of positive or negative programming,
I guess that some may blindly trust the subconscious, in contrast to smart trust. There is a book on “Smart Trust”, by Stephen MR Covey, the son of Stephen R.
This bit of analysis is beyond me at the time of writing.
I hope that this helps.
Thanks for that wealth of information Andrew!