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Smart Work

"Smart Work", Lisa J Marshall and Lucy D Freedman, Kendall Hunt, Dubuque Iowa, 1995

Review by Mark McKergow

Smart Work is about communication. Specifically, this book is subtitled The Syntax Guide for Mutual Understanding in the Workplace, and only partly because Marshall and Freedman consult under the Syntax name. The book is aimed very specifically at "technical and other professional people who want to increase the frequency with which they establish mutual understanding in their work lives". In fact, this covers most people who have a job, and also most who don't! The book addresses the changes which have occurred in corporate life since the early 1980s, when technical skill and getting the job done was enough. Now, in the mid 1990s, simply doing your own job is not sufficient - communicating and influencing are crucial too.

The book opens with a splendid preface outlining who it's for, what's to be gained by reading it and the overall layout of the material. The authors acknowledge that people have different preferences for reading (going straight though, dipping in and soon), and offer hints for how to use the book in a variety of ways. The opening chapters deal with the way that the way that the nature of work is changing, develops the idea that communication is the new work, and introduces the "Syntax Model" for effectiveness. This has seven aspects to it; plan, learn, link, inform, focus, flexibility and balance. These then form the framework for the rest of the material.

The idea of mental models, maps and territories is introduced early, with a warning that if abstraction bores you, then move on! This kind of acknowledgement of difference and offering of options occurs throughout, and is welcome. Under the heading of "plan", we find material on frames and goal setting. These are mostly shorn of NLP jargon, with ideas around sensory information and future pacing being introduced using common-sense alternatives such as "future checking". This is the second book I have reviewed here recently to do this, and the trend is to be applauded - the benefits of NLP come in the main from doing it rather than talking about it, and books which encourage the former seem to me to offer a congruent message. There is space given here to shared goals - a good extension of the usual NLP focus on individual outcomes.

In the chapters relating to "linking", Marshall and Freedman cover communication channels, rapport and resistance. The parts about redefining resistance as useful information rather than a threat, and introducing the idea (possibly strange to this audience) that thoughts and feeling are useful data, are well put across. Under "inform" we have a good description of language and its use, including the impact of our own filters and the various ways in which limitations are languaged. The material on learning includes Howard Gardner's model of various different "intelligences" (logical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, linguistic, interpersonal and intrapersonal) as well as curiosity and the importance of getting outside existing comfort zones and doing something different. Here, as always, Marshall and Freedman handle the likely objections raised by their target audience ( such as "This stuff is too vague and mushy - it doesn't measure up in terms of logic") excellently and sympathetically.

The final chapters are devoted to requesting and agreeing, to the dynamics of teams and to balancing relationships and results. The last chapter includes some proformas for the readers to ask themselves questions, assess their own needs for development and plan to do something about it. As in the rest of the book, there are "consumer protection" warnings about the need to be sensitive to context and that the structures given are not a recipe to be followed for automatic success. The whole work seems to be well put together and is admirably referenced (how many NLP books quote the research findings of, for example, the relative impacts of words, voice tone and body talk, and yet don't refer to Mehrabian's original work in 1971). And these references have given me pause for thought.

Marshall and Freedman have drawn on a large amount of source material, including Chris Argyris (single & double loop learning, mental models) and Howard Gardner. Much of this material dates from the 1970s. Looking up NLP in the index, we find it referenced specifically only in relation to the seven pages about representational systems and sensory predicates. And yet much of the material in the book will be familiar to readers of NLP World. So is this an NLP book or not? In a recent issue of Rapport, Wyatt Woodsmall mused that in 20 years time, NLP may not exist as a separate discipline, and that the useful bits would have been incorporated into mainstream knowledge. Perhaps this book, in reminding us of how much of what we think of as NLP was there before, is a part of this perspective?

If I did have a reservation, it would be that Marshall and Freedman have, in putting over this tremendous aggregation of ideas and methods, added their own "model" to provide a framework (the model being four boxes called Plan, Learn, Link and Inform. While this framework is undoubtedly useful as a shorthand, it adds little to the substance of the material. Many authors find themselves in this predicament, when they are presenting what basically are other people's ideas. However, this particular collection and exposition is particularly comprehensive, well researched and constructed to be useful to its target audience. I recommend it heartily.


Wyatt Woodsmall & Dave Marshall, Rapport 24, pp 43 - 48(1994)

"Smart Work", NLP World, 3,No 1, pp 64 - 66 (1996) (Book review)