Blog: IT's the Value Stupid

Chances are you have never considered engaging the science of neurolinguistics to advance your project management efforts - even if you've ever made a study of the field - but perhaps it's time you did.

Jed Simms, Founder and Executive Chairman of Capability Management and, has been doing just that for a considerable period of time, and says the results have helped him formulate a kind of Holy Grail of project value delivery.

Wikipedia defines neurolinguistics as the science surrounding the human brain mechanisms underlying the comprehension, production and abstract knowledge of language, be it spoken, signed or written. It's an interdisciplinary endeavour straddling the borders between linguistics, cognitive science, neurobiology and computer science. In other words, it's all about the science of communication, and the way different people respond to words in different ways.

In a newly published ebook, "In search of the 'holy grail' for projects", Simms points to the advantages project leaders can gain from applying the science to the search for desired business outcomes from projects.

Simms says during the in-depth research study he's conducted over the past few years of major Australian organizations' ability to deliver value from their projects, he's subjected 59 projects across 27 organizations to detailed analysis. Not one of those projects had defined their true desired business outcomes, while 93 per cent had missed identifying significant value from their projects: "Value the business was expecting (even if non-consciously) that was not even thought about let alone planned to be delivered."

The common mistake of all those businesses, he says, was to focus on the wrong outcomes - the project's outcomes, rather than the business's outcomes. Defining our "desired business outcomes", he says, forces us to define what we really want.

Imagine you want a holiday in London. Go to your travel agent (project manager) and ask them to arrange to get you to London and you are likely to end up stranded at the arrivals hall at Heathrow airport. The travel agent will be fully entitled to believe they have done their job (getting you to London) and that they can then close off the project. Since hanging around an airport terminal isn't likely to be the way you imagined spending your holiday, the project can be said to have failed to meet your expectations and as a result, you are likely to find yourself spending a fortune on accommodation, taxis, theatre tickets and all of the other things which you could have had cheaper were they booked in advance.

Your error, of course, would be that in asking your travel agent to 'get you to London' you gave them the wrong desired outcome. What you really wanted is more likely to be, "I want to stay in a boutique hotel in central London, within easy access of the theatres and other major sights, with tickets for the following shows ..." This would allow your travel agent to focus on arranging your complete holiday - flights, hotels, connecting travel, theatre tickets, etc. And, often, at a cheaper price than you could organize on site.

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The point is that while projects should naturally be measured on the successful delivery of outcomes, these outcomes need to be set and agreed at the outset in relation to the agreed desired business outcomes. That almost never happens

"When you focus on your true 'desired business outcomes' it changes your perspective and ensures you deliver your strategy," Simms says.

And the neuroscience? "When you get very clear, definitive, present tense, active statements that are also measurable so that you can determine where you are trying to get to and when you've got there, the brain takes those in and helps people align to achieving those goals," Simms says.

"Firstly, the definition of desired business outcomes is based on neuroscience research and techniques," the e-book says. "You can't just ask someone to define their true desired business outcomes because they're not in our conscious brain but in our non-conscious brain. The desired outcomes definition process therefore taps into people's non-conscious to construct and extract their true outcomes - this is a very specific process.

"Secondly, even with tapping into the non-conscious, people rarely can define their true desired business outcomes first time. They'll define a starting point. This starting point needs to be refined, critiqued, added to, amended, verified and validated. Each of the steps after the initial outcomes definition can cause a word here or there to be changed, for whole new outcomes to be discovered or irrelevant ones to be discarded. This is a very iterative process that progressively brings everyone onto the 'same page' in terms of what is really being targeted to be delivered. It is a process to be carefully managed. Subsequently, the project's outcomes can then be agreed in relation to the agreed business outcomes - they can be the same or a subset."

Thirdly, all outcome statements need to conform to a set of 11 rules including, for example, that each is:

  • stated in the present tense as if it existed now
  • measurable by a true/false question, eg Can we or can't we?
  • positively impacting business performance, and so on.

This is not a case of neatness but of effectiveness, Simms says. Neuroscience research has found, for example, that the brain not only understands present tense statements best but that your brain then actually non-consciously takes action to fulfil such statements. So, by defining and publishing your project's desired business outcomes correctly you actually can get everyone non-consciously working towards their realization. This is not semantics, but rather is the most powerful tool you can bring to bear on your projects.