By Adrian Brown
On day one of an NLP Master Practitioner course, the class is asked to rate their practitioner ability level on a number of different skills. There’s one particular term that has most practitioners looking blank but, when understood clearly, helps with creativity, problem solving, leadership and a whole host of other things.
The term that usually has people baffled is Omni-directional chunking.
The most widely known use of chunking is to take an overwhelming task and chunk it down into smaller pieces that seem more manageable but it doesn’t stop there.
It is said that before the days of Virgin Atlantic, Richard Branson was taking a flight to The USA and wasn’t impressed by the experience. Sitting there on the aeroplane, he started to think about how he would do it better himself by asking questions such as …
Where would I have flights to?
What sort of aircraft would I use?
What services would I have on board?
What travel classes would there be?
What would the seats be like in first class?
What would they be made of?
… and so on.
When information is received by the brain, it goes through a filtering process to allow the individual to cope with the huge amount of data and thereby keep their sanity.
One of these filters is how the information is sorted, commonly known as sorting patterns or meta-programmes. One of the sorting patterns is chunk size i.e. what level of detail does the person use. You will hear the terms such as “I want to see the big picture” or “get down to the specifics”.
In training courses, the big picture people will sit at the back of the room whilst the detail orientated will be sitting at the front, taking lots of notes.
So people will naturally chunk information in a way that they are used to.
By chunking the information in a different manner, this opens up the possibilities as it changes the client’s map of the world.
So with air travel, Richard Branson chunked the large subject of air travel down to the level of detail of what type of material the seats would be made of. After a little more investigation, he was on the phone to Boeing to ask if he could hire a 747!
The easiest way to chunk down to more detail is to ask the question “where or what specifically?”
For example, a design team making cars may say “we want to build a new off-road vehicle”. To chunk down they could ask “what specifically do we want it to do?”, “what specifically will it’s size be?” etc. They can keep going and even get down to the type of bolts being used in the engine.
So one way you can chunk information is from big pieces to small ones but we can also chunk up by asking the question “what’s the purpose of …?”
One use of this is to motivate parts of a team by asking them “whats the purpose of this specific task?” so you can reconnect them with something that they value.
In the UK, The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) start off all their job descriptions with the header “I save lives at sea by…”
This use of chunking up reminds even the office staff that they are part of a much higher purpose even when they are just doing the filing.
It doesn’t stop there. We can also chunk laterally by asking the question “what or where else?”
We can use the same approach for negotiation. Take the parties involved and chunk up to a purpose that they can all agree upon. From that agreement, we can then chunk down to a solution that they are all happy with.
After the success of Virgin Atlantic, Richard Branson then asked “if we can do this with air travel, where else can we do it?”
Chunking across to other types of transport opened up the possibility of doing the same thing with travelling by rail, hence Virgin Trains was born.
In strategy elicitation, the chunk size and direction in which the information is sorted is often very important as to the results achieved. Executive burnout can often be partly attributed to the detail of information being handled.
When I was working as a management accountant, some of the executive team would ask for very detailed break downs of budget overspends in every department under their control. This would lead to them being swamped in paper when, in reality, their job was to look at the bigger picture. Less micro-management would allow the budget managers to deal with the specific details and the executives to make clearer decisions.
So, we can chunk up, we can chunk down, we can chunk sideways.
The term omni means “all”. Omni-directional chunking therefore implies the ability to chunk in all directions.
If so, can we chunk forward and backwards? How about chunking your information in time? If it’s useful, why not?
There are many more applications of chunking, take some time to consider how else it can be used and the other examples you have seen.
Remember, the idea is to create new maps, versions of reality that we haven’t yet considered and may well be useful in achieving the results that you want the future.