Monday, 20 April 2009

“Chunking” as a Tool for Effective Process Communication and Change

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The principle of "Chunking" is said to have first been put forward in the 1950s by George A. Miller, a Harvard psychologist. Most people today will be familiar with the theory he put forward "The Magical Number Seven", Plus or Minus Two". The original research was related to our short term memory, how many numbers we can remember a few minutes after being told them only once. However, his work has gone on to be applied far beyond numbers. The principle of seven plus or minus two, is now well established as a "Golden Rule" for presenting, selling or communicating information to people. We know that we should try to follow the principle on slide bullet points, written communication and oral presentations, but "Chunking" has other applications that are vital for effective business and process improvement projects.

Beyond traditional means of communication it can be, and has been, successfully applied to the creation of maps and models e.g. no more than nine activities/ processes/ objects in a single map/model. If we have more than nine then we should break them down into manageable "chunks". The application of chunking to our maps and models aids comprehension and ensures readability.

"Chunking" is also used in a completely different way in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). It is this alternative use of Chunking that is extreme value in our process improvement or BPM type projects. I am starting with the assumption that many people struggle to either get buy in for change or to have the proper level of detail required in order to be able to implement a solution. In my own experience this has certainly appeared as the conundrum on many projects. Well perhaps you might find the answers you are seeking in the NLP concept of chunking.

In NLP "Chunking Up" refers to our moving to more general or abstract information, while "Chunking Down" means moving to more specific or detailed information. Whilst this may be similar to the point discussed above regarding maps and models, it is in fact quite different. The focus on the techniques in this case is on how we reach agreement with people or how we can elicit greater levels of specivity from people.

Learning the technique and practicing thinking about it will greatly enhance your ability negotiate more easily, to find common areas in order to reach agreement, generate new ideas and to identify the details that matter.

In order for us to chunk up on a particular piece of information we could use questions such as the following;

  • For what purpose?
  • What is the intention?
  • What is this a part of?
  • What is this an example of?

As an example, let us use sport and I assume that you are an avid fan of soccer, while I, for my sins, think cricket is the best sport. We could spend hours debating and arguing the relative merits, without ever being able to reach any form of agreement, or we could use the technique of chunking to quickly and easily reach agreement. So the example questions might now be:

  • What are soccer and cricket both examples of? – Team sports?
  • What is the intention of a soccer or cricket match? – To win?
  • What is the purpose of a soccer or cricket match? – To entertain?

Thus, we might quickly establish that we both agree that team sports are good, we might agree that we find them entertaining and that we enjoy our team winning.

We can apply the same principle to methods and approaches to process improvement. All over the world people are still arguing or debating Lean vs. Six Sigma vs. BPM, vs TQM etc. What, though, might happen if we asked everyone to apply the following questions to their preferred approach or technique?

  • What is the purpose of (Lean, Six Sigma, BPM etc.)? – To improve a company's performance
  • What is the intention of (Lean, Six Sigma, BPM etc.)? - To deliver performance improvement through the optimization of processes
  • What are (Lean, Six Sigma, BPM etc.) examples of? – Structured approaches for identifying and removing waste

You may have other answers but hopefully you will agree that when we chunk up like this we can see that the essence of all the approaches is the same. In my examples we have reached similarity on one step, but for more complex examples it may be necessary to chunk op to or more levels in order to reach the level of agreement. The principle of chunking up allows us to focus on the "forest" rather than be stuck with the "trees".

At other times we are in need of additional information or detail so we can use the technique of chunking down, examples of questions that can assist in this would be;

  • (How, what or who) specifically?
  • What is an example of this?
  • (How or what) is a good way of doing that?
  • When would we use/do that?

Going back to our sports example let's assume that I do not want to debate your love of soccer, instead I want to understand more about it, then I might ask the following example questions;

  • What specifically do you like about soccer? – Playing it
  • What is a good way of doing it? – Joining a team
  • What is an example of this? – I play for the company team

If we chunked up as above we could reach agreement, but we might still be missing vital facts, in this case by chunking down we can increase our understanding. Of course we could then chunk back up from here based on playing, teams and the company and it is possible we would reach an even stronger agreement. Even if agreement was not the purpose we would still now have more useful information.

With our examples around methods and tools for process improvement we might enquire;

  • What specifically is it you like about (Lean, Six Sigma, BPM etc.)? – A structured approach to change
  • What is an example of this? - the way we restructured our complaints process
  • How specifically? – we provided knowledge to enable one touch resolution

Here we can see that rather than talking about a method (abstract) we moved down into what it is used for and then drilled down to an example of how it had been used and what we specifically used it for. So now we can talk about the benefits of the approach, rather than simply selling the approach itself.

The examples presented here are kept simple to aid clarity, but chunking is also invaluable in getting us to think laterally. Lateral thinking is often taught and used as a way of getting us away from problems and into solutions. To effectively use chunking in this scenario one simply chunks up one or two levels and then chunks down again. As an example suppose you have to take a package to a particular destination and you do not wish to use your car. To identify alternatives, first chunk up, i.e. what is driving your car an example of? One possible chunk up is a mode of transportation. Now chunking down, you can easy identify many different modes of transportation which are on the same logical level as car i.e., Motorbike, train, airplane, walking, etc. And you can select the mode that meets your other needs.

The principle of chunking is widely used in negotiation and mediation to great effect, which is also the objective of many of our change efforts, and so is extremely useful to process and performance related projects.

Additionally in NLP teaching we make use of two models which help with and can facilitate better Chunking. They are the Milton Model – which uses vague or abstract language – to help us in chunking up and the Meta Model – with a number of different language constructs – which help us in obtaining specifics and thus helps in chunking down.

To summarise "Chunking" can be thought of as organizing or breaking down some experience into bigger or smaller pieces. Chunking up involves moving to a larger, more abstract level of information. Chunking down involves moving to a more specific and concrete level of information. Chunking laterally involves finding other examples at the same level of information. It can be used to reach agreement, obtain additional and accurate detail, to move people from one plane of thinking to another and many other useful ways. I consider it as an important skill in effective process analysis, design, improvement and change.

N.B. "Effective use of Chunking" is one of the many tools and techniques taught in Mark McGregor's 5 Day "NLP for Change Professionals" and 2 Day "The Process of Change" courses, for more information on these please email Mark directly

Monday, 6 April 2009

The Process of Change

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With the phenomenal pressure on organizations to make changes and fast, it is inevitable that processes are increasingly seen as a key to success. If you like me spend time talking with people about how they will go about understanding and improving processes, then you will know that pretty quickly the discussion turns to methods and tools. We soon find ourselves discussing the relative merits of BPM vs. Lean Sigma vs. Six Sigma, of EFQM* vs. AQPC*, of which modelling tool to use or which BPMS* vendor talk with.

Very soon people are talking about how they are going to analyze processes and problems and how they are going to improve or automate them. Keep talking and listening and eventually two things will come up. Firstly, there will be a discussion around how the method or technique needs to be applied without the associated training, "because we don't have the budget for training" and "we know how to do it but people are simply not buying into the change". Of course other issues such as communication and lack of management support are also factors, but in some ways these factors also relate to the issue of change.

I have found it fascinating over the years just how few people or organizations have in place or have even studied the "Process of Change." If change is so important to us and is such an ongoing thing, then why does every organization not have a well documented and well exercised process for change? Why do people not understand that effective change begins no t by analyzing the problem, but instead by elaborating the opportunity or eventual goals/aims? Perhaps it is something to do with the lack of breadth of our studies, or perhaps it is because the people we rely on to do the work are analysts and so naturally they are good at analyzing problems.

This reminds me a little of the ongoing debate between those with a background and training in psychotherapy and those who believe in NLP. There are many in the psychotherapy field that have no time for and are dismissive of NLP, they believe in their own approaches which in some cases can take years to produce results in their patients, they diligently work away analyzing their patients problems and slowly trying to chip away at the causes. They suggest that it is crazy to think that people with only a few weeks of training can produce life saving changes in people with only one or two sessions. They suggest that it makes no sense how people can help others without having to know all about the background and circumstances that bring them to where they are today. Yet all over the world there are people who have had their lives changed for the better in a matter of hours, who did find that good practitioners have taken them to where they want to go in one or two hours, after they had spent years in therapy. There are always new ways of doing things, the old is not bad, just old, new does not have to be good, just new. The art is to blend what works from the old with what works from the new and that delivers the best results in the shortest practical time (with the least possible pain)

Within the IT and Process space I am often amazed at just how narrowly people study, we might learn everything about our chosen method and spend a fortune on our chosen tool, but we seem to only pay lip service to other bodies of knowledge. Areas such as creativity, innovation, communication and facilitation are not learned or taught as an everyday part of Business, Systems, or Process Analysis, or when they are it is only to a small degree. I wonder just how many analysts have read Daniel Pink's "A whole New Mind" or Malcolm Gladwell's "Blink" and then combined that reading with things like Robert Cialdini's "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion" and Marcus Buckingham's "First Break all the Rules" – these are just examples of reading that cause as to have a wider perspective, there are many others and types to choose from.

Personally, I have been fascinated at look at process improvement through the eyes of Psychology & Neuro Linguistic Programming, through the eyes of nature & energy healing, in addition to the more traditional approaches. My reasons and guiding principles have been simple; in the words of Einstein ""We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them." So we need to look wider than the traditional ways of doing process analysis and design and of J. Krishnamurti "If all problems are problems of the mind, then surely all solutions are solutions of the mind, in which case if we spent as much time focusing on solutions as we do on discussing problems, we would find that solutions would come with equal measure." So how can we help people focus more on thinking about solutions and new ways of doing things as opposed to simply analyzing where they are now.

Over the past 20 years I have read studied and practiced many aspects of NLP*, I have also been fortunate to learn from many great teachers, but I have also been able to study the subject directly from one of its creators, Dr Richard Bandler. In NLP training we are taught an extensive range of tools and techniques that can help people make changes in their life, overcome fears and phobias, break down emotional barriers and to create the life of their dreams. What tends not to be taught explicitly though is the process of change, it is implicit in the training, but few people seem to notice it. A part of the original thinking in NLP was that if we could find a way to codify how great people achieved the results they did, then we could find ways of learning those patterns and teaching them to others. It was with this in mind that I took the opportunity, two years ago, to discuss with Richard the process of change and to ask him to validate my process for change. What follows is the discussion we had.

"Richard, we have learned many new skills and we have had plenty of opportunity to practice those skills. You have taught us how to make changes, many of which we have seen can be quite profound, yet I am not sure that people really understand what the process of change is, I mean how to consistently apply the learning and techniques such that good results can be obtained across a wide range of issues." To which Richard, as you would expect replied, "An interesting statement, do you have a question?" "Yes" I said, "May I repeat to you what I understand that process to be and have you comment on it?" "Sure" he said "Fire away."

"Firstly, you seem to focus on discovering what it is that somebody wants, have them describe their compelling vision of the future or positive view on why their life will be better. Then you have them go into detail on this in such a way as to have them really associate with it. During this you listen very carefully for clues and challenge them so as to ensure that they really do want to make changes and test for the level of seriousness. Once you are satisfied you appear to move on to the next step. This is when you start to analyze, to ask questions of them to understand more about what might be stopping them achieving the results they desire. Also, to think about which of the tools, techniques or patterns might be the most appropriate to achieve the results they are looking for. Once you are happy that you understand what they want and how you might help them you design an approach to achieve the desired result. Before actually performing any change work, you then check in with them to validate that they are totally happy to make the changes and will be comfortable with the results, only when you are sure that you have total agreement do you move on. If you don't have full agreement, you appear to go back to the first step and once again try to rediscover, analyze and design before one again trying to validate. Now, with their full agreement you undertake the change work, you implement the changes with them and lead them to the point where they are learning new habits, behaviors and changes for themselves, you are providing them with new choices and helping them get a different perspective on things. Once they have come to their own realization, or had their own 'aha' moment, you help them to integrate those learning's. Help them generalize the learning out into other areas of their life, areas where they believe that the new choices will serve them better. Having integrated the change, you provide them with techniques to ensure that they can hold on to the gains they have made to control the changes and themselves. Finally, you have them look at other areas of their life where the new perspective can serve them better, to have them generalize and improve those things that will serve them more usefully in the future."

"Yup!" said Richard "That seems to sum up what we actually do to make effective changes"

So, if this appears to be the process by which one of the most successful change agents of our time uses, and the one on which most other successful personal change personalities have based their own work and businesses, then why is it that we seem to try and avoid using the same process in business? The process of change is universal and the above can easily be adapted to business and process problems. The longer we try to avoid such a process then surely the longer we are going to take to successfully embed a culture of change within our organizations.

Now the question is, where will you look to enhance your understanding of the process of change? How can taking a different perspective enable you to be even more effective than you are now?

If you would like to read and learn more about NLP from the creator, then Richard has released two excellent books this year "Get the Life You Want: The Secrets to Quick and Lasting Life Change with Neuro-Linguistic Programming" and "Richard Bandler's Guide to Trance-formation: How to Harness the Power of Hypnosis to Ignite Effortless and Lasting Change", both of which I would highly recommend.


* Abbreviations used

EFQM (European Framework for Quality Management)

AQPC (American Quality & Productivity Center)

BPMS (business Process Management System)

NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming)