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The SIFT Model

Quality Tools > Tools of the Trade > 51: The SIFT Model


One of the most difficult things in business and the world in general is to understand other people. We all have an apparently non-deterministic machine in our heads which works in strange and mysterious ways. It would be very useful if we had a simple model of this machine to help understand and explain some of the things we do. W. Edwards Deming said, ‘All models are wrong, but some are useful.’ SIFT is intended as a useful model of how we think and a consequent basis for focused communication.


Our understanding, decisions and actions are driven a set of inner systems that include:

·         Deep needs. Two key needs are for a sense of control and for a sense of identity. These drive many of our behaviours.

·         Memories, or rather the reconstruction of encoded patterns, are used to recognise, classify and tell us how to do things.

·         Beliefs vary from blind belief to reasoned assumption. But in the end, everything we know is a belief.

·         Mental models are the patterns around things and events that help us explain how things work and what to think, feel and do in various situations.

·         Values are the rules (often accepted from others) that tell us what is important, right and wrong, good and bad.

·         Goals are derived from from all of the above. They aim to satisfy our needs within the bounds of our values and guided by what memories, beliefs and mental models tell us what is possible.


These systems are used in the SIFT elements which make up much of our conscious thought.



We have five senses with which to sense what is happening in the world around us, although these are not equal. In particular, what we see dominates the other senses, closely followed by what we hear. Touch, taste and smell are significant in specific circumstances (such as eating), but for change they are seldom of interest. This stream of input into our brains is guided by our attention, which turns our heads and moves our bodies, as well as being able to create a narrow or broad focus.

Managing change includes managing what people see and hear. Wherever they look should be signs of the change. Communications should appeal first to the senses, grabbing attention. Everything they see and hear should confirm that the change will happen.


Inferring meaning

The stream of visual, auditory and other sensory data is really just light and sound with no inherent meaning. Within our minds we must then make sense of what we experience. We infer meaning based on memories of previous experiences, beliefs, values, mental models, goals and needs.

In change situations, the true meaning is often unfamiliar, leading to misunderstanding and the consequent inappropriate behaviours often seen around change projects. As the change project manager, you must understand what is happening here and help people to infer the correct meaning.


Formulating intent

Once we have created meaning to what is going on around us, we can then decide what to do about it. Rather than jumping immediately into action, we initially formulate our intent, deciding what we want to achieve. Most of the time we use short-cut heuristics to simplify and speed this stage. If, however, the meaning is significant and our interest levels are high enough, then we will slow down and think more carefully about this.

As with the inference of meaning, the change manager needs to be aware of what is happening here and guide it in the right direction. This includes breaking people out of habitual thought and giving them the means to formulate an appropriate intent.



Finally, we must translate the intent into words and actions, for which we have a voice and an animate body. This is not always easy, for example when we are clumsy or when deeper biases infect our behaviours to betray an alternative intent.

In the final analysis of change management, it is the actions in which we are interested. They are our only signs of the previous internal processing and give evidence as to whether our communications were effective or not. We also must manage our own behaviours, accurately translating our real intent for maximum impact.


Deep thinking

We do not always use SIFT on the external world. We can do it internally too. We can imagine seeing, hearing, feeling and even smelling and tasting things. We then process these as if they had really happened, either for idle pleasure or as ‘safe’ experiments to guess what might happen before we put an idea into action. Our deep thinking is sometimes so engrossing we get lost in it, forgetting the real world outside and even substituting our inner imaginings for reality.


The overall SIFT model, is just that, a model. But it can be a useful tool. Watch what people pay attention to. Try to discover what they have inferred. Query their real intent. Watch what they do. From these you can guess their inner systems and hence will be better able to communicate, educate and persuade them.


Next time: Reframing


This article first appeared in Quality World, the journal of the Institute for Quality Assurance

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