NLP, Apollo 13 and Project Managers

For my money, a presentation that highlights how we think, what it means in the business of project management, clips from Apollo 13 and Clint Howard’s overwhelming forehead is a winning (© Charlie Sheen) proposition. The easy-going, engaging style of Ranjit Sidhu of ChangeQuest is another feature without parallel in this equation, of which we had all four elements Tuesday evening at an APM Yorkshire & North West branch at Leeds Metropolitan University.

Ranjit’s qualities as a public speaker, a neuro-linguistic programming aficionado, and an experienced project manager (not to mention training provider) were on display Tuesday. But the engaging is what really leaves an audience member enthralled and enlightened. NLP-related themes are hard to pull off*, but you would never see it that way through her eyes. Through 80 minutes, Ranjit clearly recognised the layout of a presentation needed attention grabbers to break it up, as several clips from Ron Howard’s Academy Award winning film did ably, but in a manner that well-illustrated earlier points and never strayed from the subject matter. In one, we saw things project managers deal with everyday: as flight director Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) lays out a re-definition of the goals of the project, we see first-hand the inner turmoil that a project faces; team members standing their ground, stressful conditions, possible solution paths to follow, and the dire consequences of those paths. Everything is on the table: Kranz, while leading, is gathering the data he has and keeping everyone aware of what is necessary.

The above scene tied in perfectly with Ranjit’s three steps for success in project management – know your outcome, notice what you get as you move toward that outcome, and be flexible when the realities of the project get in the way.

Ranjit also ably broke things up with her point about the fuzziness of the language we use and how easily misconstruction sets in on our path to effective communication. Here’s a game we played that illustrated things beautifully: Take a set of words and lay them out 0 to 10 as they pertain to level of frequency. Never is “0”; Always is “10”. Where would words like “often”, “sometimes”, “usually”, “periodically”, “a lot” and “occasionally” fit on that scale? In our small group, I held out on “often”, thinking it was a 6; my other two group members (one of which was colleague Lindsay Scott) felt it was a 7. This morning, I’ve vacillated their way, but only to a 6.5; frankly, I just can’t commit to anything higher.

You get the point then – with a variety of thinkers involved, meanings and and full definition of thoughts will get lost, but even the language (that thing most associated with definition) struggles to be defined in its fullest context.

Personally, it was my first APM event, and the impression Ranjit left is indelible and forces one to add a new element of consideration to their daily communications perspective. Hand gestures are more important now in the overall value of what’s being conveyed. Also, assumptions and pre-conceptions particularly mean less until we know more about a situation. Consider the eye-opening notion of what Ranjit calls the ladder of inference:

  • we have observable data (an extended family member has just thrown up after the dinner you made);
  • selectable data (“this has happened after we’ve eaten something I’ve cooked“);
  • we add meaning and make assumptions (“figures it happens after I’ve made something, it’s just like them to be demonstrative about it“), and;
  • draw conclusions (“no way they’re blaming me for this“). These can all go round in an endless cycle, driving your thinking and stirring an unsubstantiated craze within one’s self…

…but until we’ve confronted things further, perhaps we’ve gotten all worked up about nothing. Did your guest look a little pale when they first arrived? If so, were they slightly under the weather to begin with and too proud to say anything for fear of causing offense or drawing attention? Are they quiet by nature and therefore not prone to drawing attention? Was their appetite unaffected/substantial throughout the day and this simply proved to be a bridge too far? Confront it or take action, and the endless cycle can get some clarity and answers.

Random examples, sure: but everyday life and project life alike are affected by NLP observations like these. As I said, a presentation that has all these elements going for it has it working for me. But when you take these things and make a complicated concept like NLP relatable and relevant, well, I’m happy to sit in on a presentation of this calibre any day of the week.

For future APM Yorkshire & North West events, check out this page (registration/login details necessary). If you’re based elsewhere, the APM have local branches nationwide (check the box in the top right corner under Branches).

* – There is ample evidence of successful NLP translation going on this week: Project Management Tipoffs (out on the 17th March) features a book review by Scott of Dr David Fraser’s Relationships Made Easy. To get a look at this insightful read, subscribe free to Tipoffs today.


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  1. Hi,

    How can I get Ranjit to present this at a session in Gaydon on the 9th of May 2011 at the Heritage Motor Museum Conference centre for PMI UK


    Nirmal Singh
    Chair PMI UK Midlands and North

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