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How to do a Modelling Project - Section 3

What is a Modelling Project?

Modelling is a process whereby an observer, the modeller, gathers information about the activity of a system with the aim of constructing a generalised description (a model) of how that system works. The model can then be used by the modeller and others to inform decisions and actions.

The purpose of modelling is to identify 'what is' and how 'what is' works to produce the observed results - without influencing what is being modelled. The modeller begins with an open mind, a blank sheet and an outcome to discover the way a system functions - without attempting to change it.

[Note: We recognise this is an impossible outcome, since the observer, by simply observing, inevitably influences the person being observed. However this does not affect the intention of a modeller to not influence.]

Steven Pinker in How the Mind Works (p. 21) uses an analogy from the world of business to define psychology, but he could just as easily be describing the modelling process:

Psychology is engineering in reverse. In forward-engineering, one designs a machine to do something; in reverse-engineering, one figures out what a machine was designed to do. Reverse-engineering is what the boffins at Sony do when a new product is announced by Panasonic, or vice versa. They buy one, bring it back to the lab, take a screwdriver to it, and try to figure out what all the parts are for and how they combine to make the device work.

Pinker is not saying that people are machines. He is saying the process of making a model of human language, behaviour and perception can be likened to the process of reverse-engineering.

When 'the system' being observed is a person, what usually gets modelled is behaviour that can be seen or heard (sensory modelling), or thinking processes that are described through language (conceptual modelling). Figuring out how great tennis players serve is an example of the former, while identifying their beliefs and strategies for winning is an example of the latter.


The field of NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) was established as a result of several modelling projects conducted by Richard Bandler and John Grinder. They, in collaboration with others such as Judith DeLozier, Leslie Cameron-Bandler, David Gordon, Robert Dilts did much of the original work to codify the process of modelling sensory and conceptual domains.

[Note added 2012: A more extensive list of collaborators is given in The Origins of Neuro Linguistic Programming edited by John Grinder & Frank Pucelik]

We used sensory and conceptual modelling to study David Grove at work, and as a result discovered a new way of modelling never previously documented which we called Symbolic Modelling.

[See Metaphors in Mind: Transformation through Symbolic Modelling by James Lawley and Penny Tompkins]

Definition of terms


The outcome (of a pattern of behaviour) which can be described in sensory specific terms.

The model

An abstract formulation constructed from the information gathered from modelling the exemplar(s) which when actioned by an acquirer produces a similar class of results.


The person (or group or organisation) that consistently achieves the results the modeller is seeking to reproduce. (In the early days of NLP, also referred to as 'a model'.)


The person who gathers information from the exemplar, constructs the model, and tests its effectiveness, efficiency, elegance and ethics at reproducing similar results (usually by first acquiring the model themselves). Sometimes they then facilitate others to acquire the model.


The person (usually including the modeller) who 'takes on' the model and attempts to reproduce results similar to those obtained by the exemplar. The acquisition process usually needs to be facilitated by an accompanying narrative, metaphors and activities.


The process of gathering information from an exemplar, constructing a model, and testing its effectiveness at reproducing similar results (which requires someone to haveĀ  acquired it). See diagram below.

Modelling project

Both the plan for accomplishing the production and acquisition of a model, and the implementation of that plan. We distinguish five stages that do not necessarily happen in this order:

1. Preparing to model

2. Gathering information

3. Constructing a model

4. Testing the model

5. Acquiring the model


The process of a person constructing a model of how they achieve the results they get.

Facilitating the exemplar to self-model in Stage 2 is often a very efficient way of gathering information. At Stages 3 and 4, the modeller self-models as a way of making explicit the out-of-awareness information they have gathered. During Stage 5, the acquirer can self-model as a way of monitoring their response to acquiring an unfamiliar model.

[NOTE: A light bulb moment occurred when we grasped the implication of Michael Brean's statement (at the London NLP Group in about 1993): "All modelling is self-modelling."]

Five Stages of a Modelling Project

Five Stages of a Modelling Project (Lawley & Tompkins)

Fundamental or universal ways humans make sense of the world

'Experience' is a unified whole. Yet to be conscious of our map of the world we categorise, evaluate, compare, decide, reason, intuit, etc. These processes require us to delete, distort and generalise (Bandler & Grinder). The most common way to do this is to use one domain - usually our everyday experience of the physical world - to make sense of another domain, usually the non-physical world. In other words, we use metaphor (Lakoff & Johnson). The most commonly used metaphors, which appear to form the basis of all languages, are:


Relative location.


Sequence of events defined by a before, a during, and an after.

Schematic of a Sequence of Events

Schematic of a Sequence of Events


The attributes or qualities by which something is perceived, and at the same time, distinguished from other things, i.e. how it is known. The content of our perceptions.


The someone who is perceiving the something. To do this the perceiver needs a 'means of perceiving' (seeing, hearing, feeling and other ways of sensing) and a 'point of perception' (where the perception is perceived from). The perceiver is therefore always in a certain relationship with the form of the perceived within a given context (time and space).

Perceiver-Perceived-Relationship-Context (PPRC Model)

[Note: This model is our synthesis of David Grove's "Observer-Observed-Relationship between" and John McWhirter's "FROM-TO-IN" models.]

Levels are a means of ordering and categorising experience in a hierarchy. They are therefore usually referred to as 'Levels of' something e.g. Learning, Organization, Abstraction, Explanation, etc.

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