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James Lawley

James LawleyJames Lawley is a UKCP registered psychotherapist, coach in business, and certified NLP trainer, and professional modeller. He is a co-developer of Symbolic Modelling and co-author (with Penny Tompkins) of Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling. For a more detailed  biography see about us and his blog.

Desired outcomes Part 1
By James Lawley | Published  31 01 2011

Often the way we use our self-awareness does not help our personal development. Individually or socially.

I want to discuss a subject Penny Tompkins and I have been interested in since the first NLP Practitioner programs we trained in the early 1990s. I remember on the last day of one of them we abandon part of the program to have another go at getting over the idea of desired outcomes and their role in the change process. I think it is fair to say that for the most part we failed, and we have been failing ever since.

After considering why many people who could master the rest of NLP still didn't 'get' outcomes Penny had a revelation. Facilitating someone to identify, explore and contemplate living a desired outcome (what today we we call embodying) is not a technique. It requires modelling. And modelling, particularly bottom-up modelling, is not something that can be done formulaically. It requires responding in the moment to that person's shift in state and logic. The facilitator does not know, any more than the person, where they will end up.

Since then we have come to the conclusion that there is a wider issue to do with conceiving, consider and applying outcome thinking. We concluded that if people didn't 'get' (desired) outcomes themselves, they were likely to be restricted in the ways they had of facilitating another person's change process.

Surely managers, coaches and therapists set desired outcomes all the time. Not by our definition they don't. The fundamental issue was summed up by Robert Fritz who said "problem-solving is not creating":

There is a profound difference between problem solving and creating. Problem solving is taking action to have something go away — the problem. Creating is taking action to have something come into being — the creation [i.e. the desired outcome - JL]. Most of us have been raised in a tradition of problem solving and have had little real exposure to the creative process. (p. 131)

This quote is from The Path of Least Resistance (1989) and Fritz followed that with an elaboration of his ideas in Creating (1991). Both these books are excellent introductions to what we call ‘outcome thinking’ and, more actively, 'outcome orientation'.[1]

Nature doesn't have desired outcomes, unless you consider survival and reproduction in that category – which I don't. I see them as selection criteria. However, Nature has strategies for learning that most of us are not prepared to implement. [2] We are rarely open to learn by ‘trial and feedback’ for example. And we devote very little time to imagining the kind of future we would like to create. Or, if we do, we somehow ‘forgot’ to use what we have envisioned as a filter (or reference point) when we are faced with decisions that would move us in the direction of our desires.

What do I base my assertions on? Many things, of which I shall only mention a few:

a. I have observed that for many people once they have identified a (potential) desired outcome, they cannot attend to it for more than a few minutes – often just a few seconds – before veering off somewhere else; notably to potential problems, negative consequences and the downside or cons that might be associated with taking that course of action.

b. Given that we work cleanly, the client decides the desired outcome for themselves – they desire anything they like. But that doesn't stop them from an instant yes-but, or other mismatch and critique of their own desires – all without the slightest help from me. In fact, one of the main reasons Penny and I devised the PRO Model was to support people to stay attending to their own desires. And when the client is super-skilled at not attending to a desired outcome the facilitator has to work really hard to keep offering them that option. [3]

c. I laugh at how many time people give a downside to a desired outcome as if that negates the outcome. So there is a downside to one course of action? Is there any action which doesn’t have some kind of drawback? I don’t think this is a desire for a perfect outcome as much as way to save having to keep considering any desired outcome. In the extreme it become pathological.

d. I started one of my NLP conference presentations by writing a client problem statement on a flip chart. The only instruction to the group of about 25 was to write down what they would say in response to a client who started a session with this statement. Now, NLP Practitioners are meant to be outcome-orientated modellers and yet only one asked the client for more information, and only one asked for a desired outcome. All of the other questions and interventions were some form of solution to the problem. What hope for people who have not been on 20+ days of training? [4]

Yes, I know there are pitfalls of excessive outcome thinking.[5] I've read my Gregory Bateson. But that is not a reason to not use one of our greatest assets – our capacity to imagine how the world could be.

I suspect I shall return to this topic on more than one occasion.


1 See my notes on 'Outcome Orientation' for further quotes from Fritz and others.

2 See my blog Survival of the Sickest Part 2 for more on selection/filtering criteria.

3 As friends will attest. I am one of the world's great mismatchers. I came by it honestly, in my family that's how we communicated most of the time! I can still mismatch with the best and I have learned how to work with outcomes. Some of the best matchers I know are crap at working with desired outcomes. So that's not what it is about. Outcomes are both a way of looking at the world and a way of living in the world. And for those who do not have easy access to that worldview and those skills, what I am saying might sound like gibberish.

4 Part of the problem is that people think they are outcome/goal orientated.

5 I am responding here to those readers who might have strayed into using strategy (c) above!


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