“Like the creative composer, some people are more gifted at living than others. They do have an effect on those around them, but the process stops there because there is no way of describing in technical terms just what it is they do, most of which is out of awareness. Some time in the future, a long, long time from now when culture is more completely explored, there will be the equivalent of musical scores that can be learned, each for a different type of man or woman in different types of jobs and relationships, for time, space, work, and play. We see people who are successful and happy today, who have jobs which are rewarding and productive. What are the sets, isolates, and patterns that differentiate their lives from those of the less fortunate? We need to have a means for making life a little less haphazard and more enjoyable.”
Edward T. Hall, The Silent Language 1959
Hall’s is a grand Vision; to be able to identify the building blocks of experience so that we could differentiate the key components that add up to a more successful, meaningful and happy life. Behavioural modelling is the closest thing I know, to a realistic attempt, at creating a “musical score” of the subtle patterns of behaviour that can make a difference. I’d like to tell you a bit about what behavioural modelling is, how it derives it’s power and precision, and how it delivers results. Along the way I’ll show you how it differs from the more conventional approaches to working with and changing behaviour and describe how different kinds of model work. I’ll describe how I apply behavioral modelling both with individuals and in organisational learning interventions, through coaching clients, facilitating team development and other L&D and OD consultancy.
A Muddle of Models
I first came across the idea of Modelling behaviour applied in realistic martial art training in the 80’s. It was used to help with the reality of combat and stress training in the military. I was really struck by this practical sounding and powerful psychology. Then later in the 90’s when I was studying NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) and as an undergraduate Psychology student, I heard more about models and modelling. It didn’t take long to realise that the cognitive modelling covered in academic psychology, while really interesting, wasn’t really what people did or how they made sense of the world. And while NLP got off to a great start, I found that I was learning lots of techniques but very little modelling. I also found that the quality of the change work varied with NLP. Sometime it seemed to work great other time it didn’t. Although I studied NLP for many years, it didn’t apply to all I wanted to work with in business or with personal change. In the mid 90’s I met a researcher and developer called John McWhirter, at a conference on Developmental Behavioural Modelling where he emphasised going way beyond the material I was familiar with. I have been exploring and applying his approach to Behavioural Modelling ever since. Over two decades later and the idea of modelling still plays a central role in the work we do at Think Distinct.
McWhirter, pioneer of DBM™ and probably the world’s premier authority on all things modelling, describes three inter-related levels of modelling; Natural Modelling, Formal Modelling and Modelling Modelling. We can use these three distinctions to unpack some differences about behavioural modelling and their application in organisational change, learning and development.
The starting point for Behavioural Modelling is the idea that each of us are born into the world not knowing much and not able to do much. Compared to other animals, we have very little innate performance built in. However, compared to other animals, we are born with a huge adaptive advantage, the natural capacity to build an understanding of our selves and the world. We call this natural ability to make sense, “Natural Modelling” and the understanding we derive a “Natural Model”. Our natural models are a kind of dynamic representations of the experiences we have. They represent or approximate how the world is, just as a map represents a terrain, and we use it to learn and navigate our way through life. We respond to the world indirectly through our mapping or modelling of it.
Natural models are best thought of as a complex, dynamic whole but we can distinguish within them a relationship of subtle thoughts, feelings and other mental activities. The whole-ness of a natural mode also includes how a person expresses themselves through their patterns of behaviour. When we say someone is naturally good with people, presentation skills or a born leader, we are really saying that they have naturally developed those skills. They might not know how it works; they just do what comes naturally. One application of behavioural modelling is to make explicate these intuitive or naturalistic skills. We can describe the “sets, isolates, and patterns that differentiate their lives from those of the less fortunate” as Hall puts it, so that they can be taught and replicated by others.
As we grow and learn, our abilities to model and the natural models we create, develop to an extent. Along the way, it’s informed by the experiences we have and of course we accumulate lots of knowledge. But we learn much of the way we make sense of the world in childhood and at school. Since our natural modelling is often good enough and unconscious we might not question it. Unless we examine our own personal approach to learning or what we are calling here modelling, our learning skills and the models we create can be haphazard, habitual and biased. We can make mistakes or have blind spots. However, we can improve on our natural ability to make sense through learning to model more accurately, this is another way of saying learning to learn. We can be more systematic and check the accuracy and utility of the models we build. We call this more systematic and deliberate extending of our natural modelling, “Formal modelling”. Formal modelling then is the building of an explicit, deliberately structured and systematic model. Once in place, a formal model can be tested, evaluated and refined. One very successful approach to formal model building is the whole enterprise of science.
Types of Formal Model
There are many different types of formal model. Sciences like Physics, Chemistry and Biology have produced hundreds of models that aim to describe the world and help us do cool things. You might remember in school when you were told that atoms were like small solar systems, with electrons orbiting the nucleus in the middle. If you learned more advanced Physics you may have learned a more sophisticated, more nuanced model of atoms, with many more accurate distinctions.
In business and organisational life there are many different types of formal model in use. Each used to try to make sense of how we are operating, with the aim of improving our performance. SWOT analysis, SMART goals, , Kaizen, Lean, Fish Bone diagrams , GROW coaching, profit and loss accounts, Spin Selling, Situational Leadership, Covey’s 7 Habits and Belbin’s Team Roles are just a few examples of the myriad of models built and applied in business. Some models are more detailed and elaborate such as a Competency Framework, others are more informal, such as a To-Do list.
The Utility of Models
All models have a kind of utility value. They help us know and do things. They are tools that we can use to extend how we look at the world, just as a telescope helps us see further or an infrared camera helps us see light beyond our natural spectrum. A model helps us notice, sense and relate to the world far beyond our natural capabilities. Like a map, it helps us navigate and direct our attention and it can give us a sense of confidence. If we are lost, a model can help us make informed choices. Good models help us do things more skilfully too. They help us engineer and craft the world and change our environment. If you have a model of your financial situation for example, you might use this as the basis for budgeting, saving or spending. A business model describes how to create and deliver value. A To-Do list is a very simple model but might just get you through the day.
We use formal behavioural modelling as the basis of our coaching and leadership development programmes at Think Distinct. We should say at this point, just as when you hire a mechanic you don’t need to know how he fixes the car in detail, similarly if you are using a behavioural modeller’s services you might not need to know all the background science. As the end user, sometimes all you need to know is that it works and you get the performance you want.
As a coach, I help my clients develop their natural skills and then take them way beyond what they would naturally do. I work with their subjective understanding, how they are thinking, communicating or trying to solve problems and how they express this through their behaviour. This kind of applied DBM® behavioural modelling is called DBM® Systemic Coaching, part of an integrated approach to helping people. Behavioural modelling helps me understand what the client is doing, how they are working things and the underlying reason for their successes or challenges. The client comes with their natural understanding and I can come with my formal modelling skills. Together we make sense and build solutions that are more precise, practical, easy to apply and targeted for specific results. Many coaches espouse being client centered but in the end, frame things in terms of a few idealised models. As a behavioral modeller, I aim to build an approach that is entirely unique to each client. When I use formal models, often with hundreds of precise distinctions available, to build up an understanding and help the client create a solution, I will manage the the dynamic reality. The models and distinctions I use are “guides” or “sign posts” only, not another set of dogmas to be bound with.
As a Learning and Leadership Development consultant, behavioural modelling helps me understand the real needs of the organisation and how to create solutions that are tailored, sustainable and unique to their situation. This is very different from applying a shrink rapped, pre-packaged approach. We may use some conventional business models in the programme or formal models from DBM® were we have permission, but the chances are we will use them in very different ways or we will build a whole approach uniquely for the client. Having an insight into how behaviour works and how modelling can be used to develop performance, gives us the advantage of quickly developing a deep understanding of the client’s situation and a major flexibility of approach.
How do Models Work
Notice, in a sense, none of these models are reality. Models are just a powerful and convenient way to “package the world up” to talk about it. All models like maps, necessary simplify. If you were to carry a map of where you live that was 100% accurate it would be an exact copy of the landscape. It would have to include every tree, blade of grass and building and the perfect map would have to have all the people represented in life size techni-colour…including you, holding the map. So for convenience and to be really useful, all models, like maps, have to summaries, simplify and leave a lot of detail out. Modellers building models derive power and utility through knowing what to leave out and what to leave in.
A Model can be really useful though, if it’s designed well. Think of the London Underground Map. It’s describing something pretty complex, the size of a major city with a lot of interconnecting parts, yet with a little practise you can use it to get around fairly successfully. Similarly the Human Genome project was able to map over three billion genomes and has revolutionised some aspects of medicine. It’s really useful even if it can’t tell you everything you’d like to know about being human. Even though they summaries and leave a lot out, a model’s cachet should derive from its ability to help you do things. Models can also be beautiful things to appreciate. It’s not uncommon to have a model train, building or car on display or a map, framed on the wall. Similarly we hear of physicists or mathematicians talking about “beautiful” or “Elegant” models.
The problem with models
In business, as in elsewhere, people may have a preference for a particular model. It can become a pet approach. Coaches, consultants and entrepreneurs often get so much into their preferred model it can become the next best fad or fetish.
Given the value of our models, it’s not surprising that people can sometime be very passionate about them and in some situations, defensive about them. We see this in extreme cases in politics and religion, were different groups aim to conserve their view of the world even in the presence of contradictory evidence. This is as dangerous in business as it is elsewhere. Consultants can get evangelical about LEAN or focused on “Solution Focused” and miss were these models are less suitable. Not all models and modelling are equally useful and no one model applies equally everywhere, all the time. Formal models, if misused can lead to mistakes. People might jump to the wrong conclusion, ignore important data or manipulate the evidence to suite pre-decided interests. They defend a position or over react due to their strong emotional investment in their preferred model.
We get by most of the time with our natural modelling. Our common sense is often good enough in day to day situations and we do most things without too much attention. When we need to be more rigorous, precise or when the stakes are high, we might want to check out how we are going about things. Formal models help us systematically check what is going on and at the same time render complex phenomena easier to grasp. However some formal models overstate the case or reduce things to such a simple description that they lose what’s important. Belbin’s model of teams is a good example. It’s a great model for describing and drawing our attention to important concerns when building a team, particularly around the theme of complimentary skills and diversity. Many trainers and team coaches have used this model since it was developed in the late 60’s, including me. But if you try to apply it to a football team we quickly see it has limitations. The nine team roles in the Belbin model just don’t translate well when trying to understand what’s interesting about football teams.
In behavioural modelling we try to remember than even the most sophisticated models are…well..made up! I like to say they are “helpful fictions”. Or as Afred Korzybski said more succinctly, “The Map is Not the Territory”.
When we reflect on, critic and try to develop the modelling process its self we are “modelling our modelling”. If you remember, this is the third of McWhirters’ integrated levels of modelling. You can do this naturally or informally to a certain extent if you ask you self a question like “I wonder if I am seeing this right? Perhaps I need to shift my perspective”. You are trying to make sense of the way you are making sense.
One application of fully formal Modelling Modelling, is where we try to improve or re-model our formal models and the approaches we have to build them. If we recognise that the Belbin Team model doesn’t describe all that happens in a team for example, we can use that insight to provoke a development in our understanding and how we derived it. We can check our approach, notice what we have missed and perhaps build a more accurate or comprehensive formal model of how teams work.
All good science proceeds by building and refining models. I am doing something similar when I am helping a client check their own thinking or when I review a formal tool such as Performance Management system. In the first example I am modelling an individual’s natural modelling, maybe as part of a coaching session. In the latter example I am formally modelling a formal model used to manage performance. This might be part of an OD assignment. Modelling Modelling provides a powerful approach to understanding and refining both our natural behaviour and the formal models and systems we use to organise our work.
I hope to have provided a little insight into Behavioural Modelling and its applications in Organisational Learning, Coaching, and Team Development. It’s a powerful approach, even if it’s a special way of making things up. I hoped to have at least, in some small way, taken you a step closer to Edward T. Hall’s grand vision by making life and work a little less haphazard and more enjoyable.
As always please get in touch with any questions, thoughts and feedback. And of course feel free to share this post.
Belbin, R Meredith (1981), Management Teams: Why They Succeed or Fail, Oxford: Butterworth-Heinemann.
Hall, Edward T. (1959) The Silent Language. New York:Doubleday & Co
Korzybski, Alfred. “A Non-Aristotelian System and its Necessity for Rigour in Mathematics and Physics”, Reprinted in Science and Sanity, 1933, p. 747–61.
McWhirter, John (2002) Re-Modelling NLP part 14, Rapport 59: Re-Modelling Modelling.