Listen to Les McKeown read this blog post:
In a previous post I described how you can become 9 times more effective in the most important area of organization growth (making decisions) by either developing a decision-making system, learning pattern recognition, or better still, developing a pattern-recognition-based system.
I foolishly concluded that post by venturing that I might today try to explain how to develop pattern recognition skills – if I could boil it down to blog post length.
I’m willing to give it a try, with the understanding that given the depth and range of the topic, I’m almost certainly going to fail in some part. Here goes:
Part I: The easy way
There are two really easy ways to develop pattern recognition skills:
1. Be born with them.
The fact that you’re reading a blog post about how to develop pattern recognition skills would seem to indicate that, like me, you are not one of these people.
2. Put in your 10,000 hours.
Thanks to original work on expertise by Nobel prize winner Herbert Simon, subsequently popularized by Malcolm Gladwell, it’s now widely accepted that mastery of any discipline (i.e., reaching the stage where pattern recognition has become second nature), absent the birth gene referred to above, requires 10,000 hours of practice and experience.
Put in your 10,000 hours, see patterns in your sleep. Easy.
Part 2: The harder way
If you’d like to accelerate the development of your pattern recognition skills (even if you’re still going to put in your 10,000 hours eventually), here’s how to do it:
1. Study nature, art and math.
Patterns occur most overtly (and most perfectly) in nature, art and math – think of the Fibonacci Sequence, the circuits of the planets, the tides and the seasons, the shape of a snowflake.
There’s a reason why so much wisdom came from ancient agrarian races, and it is their closeness to the patterns and truth inherent in nature. Call it divine if you will, or call it poetic chance, either way, the greatest tutor in pattern recognition is the natural world around you.
2. Study (good) architecture
Man’s closest approximation to the beauty of nature’s patterns is in our greatest architecture.
Imbibing architecture’s lessons is easy: visit a beautiful building any chance you have, and read anything by Christopher Alexander (not an affiliate link).
3. Study across disciplines
All great patterns, as with all great truths, are transcendent. You’ll know you’ve found a pattern worth holding on to when you can see it has an immediate, intuitive and unforced application across disciplines.
I knew I had something extraordinary in the Predictable Success model the day I realized it not only applied to business organizations, but not-for-profits, NGO’s, governments, church socials, soccer leagues and even relationships.
4. Find a left-brain hobby
I like to write computer code as a hobby. Great computer code is all about pattern recognition; enabling the reuse of code in modules, sparely and elegantly.
For you it might be doing crosswords, playing Words With Friends, or Sudoku, or video games – it doesn’t matter, so long as your brain is getting a couple of hours every week when it receives gratification and reward for the discovery of patterns.
5. Don’t read (much) in your own discipline
The patterns of the land we live in are most plainly seen from 30,000 feet. Looking down from a jetliner on the Rockies, or the Amazon, or Paris, or the Australian Outback for just one hour, lends more understanding of the patterns of that terrain than a year on foot.
It’s the same with your chosen industry or niche. Most of what’s written is at the 0-500 feet level – and it’s often the same turgid stuff repeated over and over.
Do yourself a favor, step back, and view your industry from afar. Cease trying to be an insider, and cultivate the mindset and perspective of an outsider. You’ll see more, understand more, recognize more.
6. Listen for echoes and watch for shadows
Patterns are seen not in the decisions you make, but in the shadows they cast. You know you have the makings of a pattern when two or more very different decisions cast a similar shadow.
(You hire this person, three months later your margins slip. You open a branch in Poughkeepsie, three months later your margins slip. Different actions, same shadow. You have a pattern there. All you need to do is figure out what it is.)
Similarly, patterns are detected in echoes. Not in the echo from this decision, but in the echoes you hear from previous decisions.
(You reassign a team’s priorities and they squeal, but there is little to learn from the squeal, because that is not the pattern. The pattern is the dryness of your throat, or the irritation of your COO, or the drop in morale that you recall from the last time you rearranged a team’s priorities. Different actions, same echo. You have a pattern. Now all you have to do is figure it out.)
This, so far as I know, and as awkwardly as I can describe it, is how to develop the skill of pattern recognition.