Tuesday, May 31, 2016
The Beauty and the Danger of Patterns
Stuck in a rut. Blindsided. Tunnel vision. Blind spots.
I call them ‘siblings’ from the family of cognitive errors.
If I say that you are stuck in a rut I mean that you are fixed in your thinking and in the way you do things. It could be that you've been doing something the same way for too long. It could be that you over-use the otherwise very useful skill of pattern recognition and reliance on previous experience. If you do an online search for the meaning of ‘blindsided’ one of the examples you get is of a quarterback who was blindsided and had the ball knocked out of his hand. And then there is tunnel vision, blind spots ….
… you get the point I’m sure.
In our coaching and workshop conversations my clients and I regularly discuss the benefits and the ‘how-to’ of taking different perspectives, seeking dissenting views, and appreciating contrarians (ask my husband and our children and they’ll probably tell you that I fail at least as often as I succeed in putting this to practice myself).
Two weeks ago I was fortunate to attend the Global Change Management Conference by the Association for Change Management Professionals. Imagine 1500 people from 26 different countries sharing a wealth of knowledge, their experience, and a wide variety of perspectives during this three-day event in Dallas. Enriching, energizing, and fun!
Harvard happiness researcher Shawn Achor was the opening keynote speaker at the conference. Shawn mentioned the Tetris Effect, after the popular tile matching video game Tetris. The Tetris Effect occurs when you devote so much time and attention to an activity that it begins to pattern your thoughts, your mental images, and even your dreams. People who play Tetris for prolonged periods, don’t see ordinary boxes at the department store or ‘just’ buildings on Main Street. They see how the different shapes of these boxes and buildings can fit together as if they were playing the Tetris game.
So back to the ability of pattern recognition, which helps us all assess and solve problems and prevents us from inventing the wheel over and over again. In 1998 psychologist and researcher Robert L. Solso defined pattern recognition as the ability to abstract and integrate certain elements of a stimulus into an organized scheme for memory storage and retrieval. Sounds useful and it is useful! One of the many advantages of pattern recognition is that you can identify patterns and objects even when partly hidden, with incomplete and ambiguous information, and even better, you can recognize these patterns with ease and automaticity.
Our ability to recognize patterns is what gave humans their evolutionary edge over animals. It’s considered one of the hallmarks of intelligence if you define the latter as the ability to solve problems. We humans are amazing pattern-recognition machines. We have the ability to recognize many different types of patterns, transform them into concrete and actionable steps, and draw cause and effect conclusions. None of that I wish to throw out. Nor am I against the increasing possibility of machines to recognize patterns, such as Google’s driverless cars, which are able to recognize traffic and schedule changes faster than humans. Or think of the application of pattern recognition in the medical field. Diagnosing an illness is also the result of recognizing patterns, however my bacterial infection was misdiagnosed – which almost cost me my leg – as an acute rheumatoid attack due to the absence of a so-called must-be-present element in the ‘bacterial-infection-pattern’. IBM Watson is getting into medical diagnosis and in many ways, machines will be better at pattern recognition than humans due to their superior processing power, recognizing the right patterns faster than anyone else.
Yes, I hugely appreciate pattern recognition, whether done by man or machine, and at the same time I urge everyone to be watching out for over-reliance. Make sure you do not ‘see’ patterns that aren’t there (maybe they never were or maybe just not this time). Explore which relationships between events you may mistake for cause-and-effect patterns. Investigate which of your blind spots are based on so-called patterns and on expectations that haven’t been tested in a while. Know when you’re jumping to conclusions and clouding your perceptions and interpretations because you (think you) see a pattern. Focus instead on four C’s:
1. Be Curious – especially towards different views, thought processes, and choices.
2. Be Critical – particularly of your own pattern-based focus, interpretations, assumptions, and conclusions.
3. Be Creative – look for different ways of viewing a person, situation, or problem.
4. Be Candid – with yourself and with others, whenever you suspect the Tetris Effect or any of its siblings.
Four words that, if applied on your job and at home, can have a significant positive influence on your outcomes, relationships, and well-being.
Curious. Critical. Creative. Candid.