Introducing Modelling to Organisations

Questions to consider when embark on a modelling project
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Published in Rapport, issue 40, Summer 1998

Over the last few years organisations have become increasingly interested in NLP and how it can be used to develop their people and systems. In my work in organisations I am often asked, “What is this thing called NLP modelling?” I usually answer by giving them an article which contains a brief overview of the five stages of a modelling project.

I believe this article may be of use to others who would like to introduce modelling into organisations and so I am reproducing it below. In addition, I am providing a ‘checklist’ of items and questions to consider if you decide to embark on a modelling project, as well as an annotated reading list. It is my hope this information may stimulate you to learn more about the process at the core of NLP and use it to enhance the skills of the people in the organisations in which you work.

Modelling Excellence in Organisations

Whatever method an organisation uses to evaluate skills, the results are likely to show an approximately ‘normal distribution’ of capabilities. Most people will occupy the mid-range, a few are top performers while the rest are at the other end of the scale. The basic principle of modelling in organisations is to discover what top performers do that is different from their colleagues and to transfer those skills to everyone else, thereby ‘skewing the curve’ towards the high-performer end.

Modelling what can’t be observed

To date most approaches to modelling have concentrated on studying external behaviour. This is not surprising since external behaviour is observable and there is a ready-made language to describe it. However, if a person’s most important capabilities are internal (ie. thinking and feeling processes), traditional methods of modelling are of limited value.

Most people today accept that their ability to produce effectively is influenced by their feelings, way of thinking, beliefs, values and sense of identity. It therefore becomes crucial to identify thinking strategies and other ‘intangibles’ that are so important in excellent managers, planners, trainers, sales representatives, and so on.

The NLP Approach

NLP emerged in the 1970’s as a result of number of modelling projects conducted by Richard Bandler and John Grinder. In order to accurately define what their subjects were doing Bandler, Grinder and others developed a new approach to modelling which encompassed internal processes as well as external behaviour.

In other words, NLP has found ways of making conscious the out-of-awareness behaviours, mental habits and beliefs of top performers, as well as defining a code for describing these processes. The result is called ‘a model’ and once specified, it can be learned by others as part of their quest to improve performance.

The general principles and methods of modelling are independent of the skill-set being modelled or the environment in which the modelling takes place. Thus the approach can be applied to almost any circumstance and is being used extensively in business, education, health, sports, personal development and other application areas.

In the twenty years following Bandler and Grinder’s original formulation, the list of skills modelled in major organisations has expanded at an increasing rate and the NLP model of modelling has been refined and extended many times. Modelling projects undertaken range from very specific behaviours to highly general competencies and include:

  • Small Arms Shooting (US Air force)
  • Safe Driving Project (Metropolitan Police)
  • Management (British Telecom)
  • Dealership Skills (BMW)
  • Futures Trading (Chase Manhattan Bank)
  • Strategic Thinking (The Tioxide Group)
  • Creativity (Walt Disney Inc.)
  • Systemic Thinking (IBM Europe)
  • Leadership Skills (Fiat Corporation)

Unconscious Competence

So, what is modelling excellence based on?

Each of us has a particular set of strategies which enables us to function effectively in an organisation. These repetitive sequences of internal and external behaviour include strategies for delegating, for learning and teaching, for motivation, creativity, decision making and a thousand other functions. Yet these skills are most often acquired by unconscious trial and error and, because they are not obtained explicitly, we have little idea of how to transfer them to others.

What is more, people may succeed magnificently using one particular strategy for a certain function (defining company policy, for example) while seriously underachieving when they attempt to apply the same strategy elsewhere (explaining those polices).

When you ask people who are really excellent, “How do you do it?” the most common response is, “I don’t really know” or “I just … sort of … do it and everything happens naturally.” This is typical of ‘unconscious competence’. By the end of the modelling project the person being modelled invariably says “Well, I never realised that’s what I do” and often they will add “I thought everyone did it that way!”

Even a little modelling will show that people often use widely different internal processing strategies, and this accounts for the gap between mediocre and top performers. Most strategies, once they are made explicit, can be easily learned or modified to accomplish organisational or personal goals.

Stages of a Modelling Project

A typical modelling project will go through the following stages:

1. Preparation.

Preliminary interviews with the organisation to identify: the purpose and measurable evidence for successful conclusion of the project; those competencies most useful to model; who are the top performers to be modelled; the scale of the project; the budget and an action plan.

2. Information Gathering.

Allocating time needed with each of the top performers in the context within which they use their skills as well as follow up interviews. Similarly, some average performers will need to be studied in the same context for comparison. Usually three people in each category is sufficient.

3. Model Building.

The use of comparative and contrastive analysis to identify what the top performers are doing that the average ones are not. This results in the construction of a model of effective behaviour and mental processes. Now comes the application of Occam’s Razor: to simplify the model to it’s minimum components while still maintaining the results – discovering the difference that makes the difference.

4. Testing.

Teaching selected average performers how to use the model and measuring how much their results improve (using the criteria defined in Stage 1). The model is then refined and documented.

5. Transferring.

At this point, the direction the project takes depends on its purpose. Three common routes are to:

  • Use the results to supplement or streamline the organisation’s existing training programmes and retrain the trainers,
  • Design and deliver a new training course to transfer the high performers’ skills to others who would benefit,
  • Produce a profile of a typical top performer to be used as part of the organisation’s recruitment and selection process (and train the recruiters).

Project Timescales

Stages 1 to 4 are likely to take approximately 20 days if the competency being modelled is well specified. More general skills or qualities are usually a complex composite of behaviours, strategies and attitudes and consequently take more time to elicit. Timescales for Stage 5 are related to the size of the organisation and numbers involved.


The NLP approach to modelling offers a proven method for discovering what top performers do that makes them so effective. Once this has been achieved other members of the organisation can learn to replicate the effective behaviour and strategies to improve their own performance.

Where To Go From Here?


Who are you (what is your identity)?

  • Before the project
  • While modelling
  • After the project is over?

Who is the subject of the modelling?

  • One person
  • Group of people
  • An organisational system

Who else is involved?

  • Recipient of skills etc.
  • Trainers/recruiters
  • Colleagues/Customers

Why are you modelling?

  • What is the outcome for you?
  • What will you gain?

Why model the subject?

  • What is your outcome for the subject?
  • What is the subject’s outcome?

Why are you modelling?

  • What are others outcomes?
  • What will the organisation gain?

How will you model (what skills are needed for each stage)?

  • 2nd Position Modelling
  • 3rd Position Modelling
  • 1st Position Modelling
How will the subject(s) demonstrate what you want to model?

How will the competencies be acquired by others?

  • How will you know they have them?
  • What methods will you use?
BEHAVIOURWhat will you do at each stage of modelling?
1. Preparation
2. Information Gathering
3. Model Building
4. Testing
5. Transfer

What is to be modelled?

  • Behaviour
  • Skill
  • Thinking strategy
  • Belief/Value/Attitude
  • Perception/State
What will other people need to do to acquire the skills, strategies etc.?
will the results of your modelling exist, and in what form?
When and Where
will the subject be modelled?
When and Where
will you present the results of your modelling, and in what form?

Further Reading

Most NLP books are about the results of modelling projects, not about the modelling process itself. For more information on modelling excellence and how skills development can be accelerated you can consult:

Anthony Robbins has a very readable couple of chapters on modelling strategies in Unlimited Power (Simon & Schuster, 1988).

For a short and clear introduction to strategies see chapter 4 of Charlotte Bretto‘s, A Framework for Excellence (Grinder, DeLozier & Associates, 1988).

Robert Dilts & Todd Epstein‘s Tools For Dreamers (1991) is packed with micro and macro processes for modelling with lots of examples of strategies for creativity. (Meta Publications, 1991)

The three volumes by Robert Dilts, Strategies of Genius Volumes I, II & III are the definitive work on how to model when your subject is an historic figure. (Meta Publications, 1994/1995)

Robert Dilts has just brought out a new book Modelling with NLP which provides an in-depth look at the modelling process and its applications. (Meta Publications, 1998).

Leslie Cameron-Bandler, David Gordon & Michael Lebeau wrote The Emprint Method: A Guide to Reproducing Competence in order “to provide you with tools that will enable you to identify and acquire (or transfer to others) desirable human aptitudes.”  Although David Gordon now says it is really about modelling emotional competence, it is still one of the most comprehensive models of modelling yet published. (Real People Press, 1985)

Judith DeLozier‘s article “Mastery, New Coding, and Systemic NLP” in NLP World (Vol. 2 No. 1, March 1995) has a brief description of a “not knowing” state that is excellent for modelling. An account of her and John Grinder‘s modelling project of people who have completed interesting modelling projects can be found in Turtles All The Way Down (Grinder, DeLozier & Associates, 1987).

For an introduction to a new form of modelling see Penny Tompkins and my article Symbolic Modelling inRapportIssue 38, (Winter 1997, pages 3-13)

And, if you want to go back to where it all began, the original and highly technical work on eliciting, designing, utilising and installing strategies is by Richard Bandler, John Grinder, Robert Dilts & Judith DeLozier, NLP Volume 1 (Meta Publications, 1980).

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