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Clean Scoping: Know Nothing, Expect Nothing and Observe Lots


Clean Scoping is our way of pitching for work. Rather than deliver an ‘expert’ presentation, we arrive with a blank sheet of paper and ask lots of questions. Caitlin Walker shares some practical insights on how she goes about the process.

  • For the last 20 years I’ve been creating collaborative cultures in organisations, here are the issues I encounter when scoping for business:
  • Commissioner doesn’t know what they want to have happen and hasn’t really thought it through
  • The wrong people have been asked and the wrong people are at the meeting
  • The way that they’re going about the commissioning and design of the intervention is an example of the problem they’re trying to solve
  • The leader wants their team to do something they aren't willing to do themselves
  • The company is ignoring the huge wealth of creativity and expertise already operating in the company

Therefore it is foolish to go in and pitch to solve a problem they don’t actually have.

Clean Scoping fosters emergent outcomes. Every meeting means you’re likely to end up a long way from where you started. When I first go into an organisation, I have nothing to sell because I have no idea what we’re going to do.

I know that if the company does commission our services then we’ll probably use the following Systemic Modelling tools:

  • Clean Questions
  • Clean Set Up
  • Clean Feedback
  • Developmental Tasks
  • Drama Triangle
  • Clarifying Problems and moving to Outcomes
  • Moving from Drama to Action using the Clean Change Cycle
  • Eliciting autogenic metaphors such as Working at Best

But I’m unlikely to be able to sell these to them as they stand – they’re almost meaningless without a clear context and an agreed outcome.

Being in a state of not knowing is crucial to Clean Scoping. Even if I start to have an idea of what I could do, I keep it quiet at first. Not only do I not talk about it, but if I notice I’m thinking about it too much, I move it out of my attention (usually just outside of my peripheral vision). The more attention I have on my own outcomes the less room there is for observation and emergent knowledge. There’ll be a stage later when I’m clear what needs to be done but at that point I’m a naïve expert.

So many times when I’m brought in to help foster change, the project sponsor hasn’t taken the time to find out who, if anyone, is already doing what they want people to do. Once I know what they actually want people to do, I get them to send out a few emails and ask whether this is already happening in the organisation and who’s doing it well, especially if they’re people with similar resources to those who need the skills, because if they can do it, so can others.

This saves reinventing the wheel and also sends the meta-message of rewarding and appreciating good work.

It's also vital to check that whoever is commissioninig the project is willing to undergo the learning and development and to use the skills they want other people to be doing. Once I've elicited what they'd like to have happen I can check whether what they are doing in-the-moment is congruent with that outcome or now. IF they are open to separating evidence from inference, if they are open to noticing when they are holding others or themselves in Drama and reflecting on where this is coming from, THEN, I will be more willing to consider supporting their teams too. There are few things more psychologically unsafe than teaching Clean and Systemic Skills when a leader isn't able to notice and admit their own Drama narratives nor how they're holding people in contempt. That just sets teams up for failure.

When I scope a project cleanly, I am in a state of knowing nothing, expecting nothing, observing lots, holding them to their outcomes and feeding back my observations, trusting they’ll make good use of the information and that an exciting piece of work may emerge from it.

Guidelines for Clean Scoping

  1. Know your own patterns; know what’s likely to trigger you to show off or jump to conclusions or try to please someone
  2. Be confident to challenge your client and to hold them to their own values and outcomes.
  3. Access experts and examples of great practice from within the system.
  4. Check and recheck that the design is code-congruent with the outcomes wanted by your client. The way you and the project sponsor are designing the intervention needs to be an example of the outcome you’d like from the intervention.
  5. Do your due diligence - practice, practice, practice with non-paying clients until you know how this kind of process works and you have the confidence to trust the process you are offering.
  6. When you’re evaluating an emergent project, it’s a good idea to get in early and cast your observation net wide so that unexpected shifts can be tracked.
  7. It’s possible to have a whole system impact if you work with influential nodes across the system.
  8. The person who sponsors the project needs to be the one leading the change process. They should demonstrate business and personal benefit before the main project is rolled out.
  9. When a project is too rushed, there isn’t time for the first iteration to inform the next. Ensure there is space for reflection and learning.
  10. If your work is any good people should see evidence of you applying it to yourself– be the example of the process in the moment

How To Learn More

If you’d like to know more about Clean Scoping, you can go to Caitlin’s full article on the subject here.

Once we are appointed to run a project, we use Systemic Modelling tools, as indicated above. We teach the generic Systemic Modelling process in our Systemic Modelling Rolling Programme. Start the learning process by attending our two-day Clean For Teams workshop where you can experience the process for yourself.

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About Caitlin Walker

Caitlin Walker's avatar

Caitlin is a director of Clean Learning and the developer of Systemic Modelling™. She is the author of From Contempt to Curiosity, which details many of the innovative and transformational projects she’s led across our community from the most dispossessed to leading think tanks.

Caitlin graduated in Linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies and completed four years post graduate research in ‘Strategies for Lexical access’ including fieldwork in Ghana. She began modelling teaching and learning while at SOAS, volunteering intermediary classes to translate information presented at lectures into different learning styles for the students. At the same time she was a youth worker in Kings Cross bringing these leading edge tools to groups of young people.

She went on to set up literacy clubs in King’s Cross, where children could come to learn to spell. From 1996 – 1999 Caitlin was an Education tutor with the Dalston Youth Project, a Home Office run experiment to offer accelerated learning to at-risk students, alongside mentoring, to keep them in school. She ran these sessions as NLP modelling workshops and achieved excellent results with the students. The project won a Crime Prevention and Community Safety award for Great Britain. In 1999 she was offered the opportunity to develop her work in a business context and she created the ground breaking metaphors@work process. These techniques are available on the Creative Management section of the Open University MBA program and on a 10 week modular course on Practical Thinking. She has co-designed and she co-delivers a Masters Level module in Coaching and Mentoring at Liverpool John Moores University.

She has since developed her modelling skills from small scale group development to whole scale organisational culture change programmes. She designs and delivers tailor made learning and development programs for addressing diversity, conflict, leadership, managing mergers and creating ‘learning organisations’.

Caitlin practices in a variety of contexts. Clients include: Jeyes Group, Liverpool John Moores University, Pharmacia, Hull City Council, South Yorkshire Police Service, Bexley Care Trust, New Information Paradigms, Work Directions UK, Crime Concern, BT, Police National Search Centre, Celerent Consultancy, Carbon Partners, Ealing LEA, and Working Links. She has trained a number of in-house trainers to carry on and develop the work without creating dependency on her expertise. She has systematically tested and developed her ideas in challenging arenas and her robust products have become sought after learning aids.

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