The Law of Requisite Variety and NLP Strategies

I have been re-reading “Neurolinguistic Programming v. 1” recently (I tend to go round in circles and take the time to revisit and revise my NLP skills on a regular basis), this has rekindled my interest in cybernetics and systems theory. NLP did not spring fully formed out of nowhere and one of it’s major influences, particularly on the strategies of NLP, was the cybernetic theories of Gregory Bateson, Stafford Beers and William Ross Ashby.

Ross Ashby, in his seminal book “An Introduction to Cybernetics” introduces one of the fundamentals of cybernetic thinking “The Law of Requisite Variety”.

The Law of Requisite Variety states:

The larger the variety of actions available to a control system, the larger the variety of perturbations [changes or alterations] it is able to compensate.

It is oft quoted but rarely understood, so here is my attempt to help you understand it and, most importantly, put it to practical use.

What is The Law of Requisite Variety and Why is it Important?

In its most basic of interpretations, on a behavioural level, the Law of Requisite Variety states that the person with the most variety in a system will control the system. I am sure you have noticed that, no matter what field you are in, the top people are those that have the most flexibility in their behaviour (one of Dilts’ Four Pillars of NLP). They seem to have an ability to react and respond to differing situations easily and take everything in their stride.

Practicing Strategies with The Law of Requisite Variety

To embed an NLP strategy (a skill) you need to have repeated the process enough times, with enough variety to be able to apply it to different situations, context, frames and stimulus. To give yourself requisite variety and flexibility in your behaviour. Many of the mental strategies people use, because they share the same form, can be used in variety of situations; the process you go about to get yourself up in the morning can be used to motivate yourself to do just about anything. Yet people rarely generalise useful strategies in this way.

How can you create the desired flexibility?

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Outliers: The Story of Success“, states that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to get effective at a skill or process. I don’t think 10,000 is the absolute rule, it is more a guide, a metaphor, for doing it LOTS of times!

Not just doing it lots of times, but to vary the way in which you do it to build variety and flexibility into the strategy. Take for example a footballer (soccer player for any American’s reading!) who practices day after day to kick the ball into the same place in the goal from the same spot on the field. They would build an excellent strategy, but that strategy would become useless if he had to strike from an alternative spot or aim for an alternative target. Compare that with the footballer who practices every day to strike the goal from different locations, at different distances and angles. Who has most variety? Who would be the better footballer in general terms?

When doing strategy instillation it is essential to build enough variety into the process to allow the person to start to generalise that new thought process or skill across as wide a range of contexts and frames as possible. That, simply, is the Law of Requisite Variety.

About Matt Caulfield