The Power of Patterns

 Patterns are everywhere. Teams, both formal and informal, can be described by their patterns.  Thinking about groups of people in terms of the patterns they exhibit offers a new way to see them, assess them, and influence them.

An elegant and powerful way to do this is by using distinctions and language derived from the “new” sciences of complexity, chaos, and Human Systems Dynamics. These sciences focus on the non-linear, uncertain aspects of the world. They focus on concepts like interdependence, self-organization, and emergence. This special vocabulary offers greater precision and the ability to interact with other people with words that contain shared meaning.   For example: Person “A” looks at a picture in a museum. Asked if whether she thinks it is “good art” or not, she responds, “I like it.”  Asked for the reasons she likes it, she replies, “I don’t know – I just do.”

Compare that with person “B” who looks at the same picture. Her answer, “Yes, I think it is good art. Notice the three different ways the paint is applied; the harmony of the color palette, and the contrast between foreground and background. I especially like the juxtaposition of evergreen and seasonal flowers. It is an excellent example of the naturalist technique.”

Remember, both are looking at the same picture. The difference is in the sophistication of the language; the distinctions each person is able to make.  Imagine you are curator of the art museum. Your task is to show each person other pieces of art that might be of interest to them. What have you learned from person “A”? How can you direct her? How can you even engage her in a relevant conversation?

Think about the same questions for person “B.”  She indicates appreciation for naturalist artwork, explaining the aspects of it she finds pleasing. As the museum curator, you now have the basis for several different possibilities for person “B” to explore. You could bring her to other naturalist works; other paintings with interesting contrasts between foreground and background; or other pieces that display multiple paint application techniques.

What does all of this have to do with the power of patterns? There is no guarantee that person “B” will like any or all of the next pieces you show her! While she displayed both knowledge of, and a positive reaction to a certain genre of art – a pattern – that does not mean she must like everything that displays a similar pattern. While the language allows us an informed awareness of her perceptions and preferences, there is no “cause and effect;” “show her this and I guarantee she’ll like it” certainty.

Different aspects of a team’s work demonstrate this dynamic in varying degrees. There are structural aspects of teams within organizations that we want and need to have a high degree of predictability.   We demand a high degree of certainty that the team responsible for the maintenance and operation of the airplane we’re flying in will have acted in a predictable and consistent way so the plane and its passengers will arrive safely at its destination. The mechanical elements of organizations (e.g. the plane itself) can and do manifest the properties of “cause and effect.”

It gets stickier when we talk about change; about people and teams needing to do things differently. Here, the situation is more like the two people in the museum. There is room for judgment; for opinion. Those judgments and opinions are formed based on a myriad of past and present data that are unique for every individual in the team.

There is no one, “best” way to get a team and organization to change in the ways we desire. By understanding and discussing their patterns, we gain sophistication and precision that allow us to better understand and influence them. That may be the best we can do.