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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • August 8, 2020
  • minute read

How to develop pattern recognition skills 

pattern recognition

In our previous post I described how you can become 9 times more effective in the most important area of business growth (making decisions) by either developing a decision-making system, learning pattern recognition, or better still, developing a pattern-recognition system.

I foolishly concluded 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.

Many child prodigies in various disciplines – notably artchess and mathematics – appear to be born with an enhanced ability to discern intricate patterns.

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 / 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 Predictable Success 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 Sudoko – 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 the 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 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, know more.

6. Listen for echoes and watch for shadows

Patterns are seen not in the decisions you make, but 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. What do you know? Care to share below?


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  1. For much more in-depth information on pattern matching you might take a look at Farnam Street Mental Models. Here's a link: https:undefinedundefinedfs.blogundefinedmental-modelsundefined

  2. I think that studying averages helps develop pattern recognition. Not just math averages but psychology, science, social, etc. My reason is that if we become too focused on “the rare exceptions,” so to speak, then we’ll miss out on what’s true in general. If we hope to learn the insight that comes from pattern recognition, we need a solid grounding in what’s common first. Then a study of “rare exceptions” will make more sense and we’ll be able to see how they fit into the overall picture, or pattern.

  3. From my experience, especially as a writer and teacher, pattern recognition can come from among other things, a willingness to learn from what does not go as planned, or expected. Being the teacher who also learns in expectancy, gives me better insights into why my students learn to learn, and also teach others, myself included of their discoveries. This sounds abstract, but it is not. It is more intuition, trusted, experienced and rewarding. Without being biblical, such efforts consciously welcomed and expected makes one almost prophetic in outcomes, and broadguaged in understanding otherwise.

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