Patterns help us make sense of the world. Imagine trying to find your way out of an unfamiliar building. How would you do it? You might look for an exit sign, you might look for natural light coming in through a window or door. You might look for the widest corridor leading to the edge of the building. You would probably do all these things, without even thinking about it, because you’ve memorized a pattern for how buildings are constructed. Using that pattern, you can find your way around a building you’ve never been in before. Patterns help us navigate our way through life and can be particularly helpful when we find ourselves in new and challenging situations.
Patterns show up in physical things, like buildings and towns and machines. Patterns also exist in non-physical things, like the customs and rituals that guide the way people interact with each other. Behaviors, healthy or otherwise, are patterns we follow in our own lives. Really anything that forms a repeatable structure is a pattern.
Think about when you learned something from a meaningful event you witnessed and later applied that lesson to your own life. What you really learned is a pattern. For example, when you watched a company executive take over a failing division and turn it around, what did that instill in your behavior, point of view, and management philosophy? You stored that pattern in your conscious or subconscious mind. It now becomes available to you when you need it.
Finding Patterns Around You
Finding a pattern often takes work. Life can be complicated, and discerning a pattern takes a certain level of focus. Like the Magic Eye optical illusions, where one picture is hidden inside another, a pattern can be hidden in plain sight, only appearing when re-focusing your vision. With a little patience and keen observation, there is often a wonderful, aha! moment when a new image suddenly emerges. As if it was always there and just waiting to be seen.
A pattern can act like a decoder ring. It exposes the underlying mechanics and meaning of things. What makes patterns great, apart from the fact that they are often fun to find, is that they help us understand why things work the way they do. They can serve as a set of instructions applicable to many unrelated environments. Often, using an old pattern in a new way can be the key to solving an otherwise unsolvable problem.
Not All Patterns Are Created Equal
Patterns can generate positive outcomes, or they can create blocks and friction. The tricky part is figuring out if the pattern was helpful or hurtful. To do that, you must measure the value of a pattern based on the outcome it generates. In an ideal world, we might carry around our set of patterns. We’d apply them, inspect their outcomes, then fine-tune them along the way. That works well when finding your way out of a new building. But most of our lives are not nearly that orderly. We often get to an outcome and only at that point stop to reflect on how we got there. Regardless, taking the time to recognize the actual pattern itself by creating a schema of it, and understanding how it works, can help explain why things happen the way they do, and how to create the outcomes we want.
A good pattern is a blueprint for a design that works well. However, what’s better is that a good pattern can often be used in lots of wildly different scenarios. It isn’t surprising that learning how to navigate through a school creates a pattern that can later guide you through a hospital or an office building. Yet that same navigation pattern can also help you create a process flow for a consumer finding their way through your digital marketplace.
Borrowing Patterns for Business Transformation
A common challenge for many company executives is the need to understand how other companies, either a competitor, or in another field altogether, have managed to create some level of digital transformation.
The question is: How did those companies overcome the almost impossible task of reinventing portions of their business in a digital way? While the potential is great and the urgency is real, the risk of disrupting a functioning business seems almost too high. The people, processes, materials and technology within a company are structured in a complex and highly inter-related way, which itself becomes a pattern producing predictable outcomes. When those outcomes are less than desirable, changing them means changing their underlying patterns. The next questions are: what new patterns can be applied in order to create better outcomes, and where are the best places to look for them? Companies that look in unusual places can often gain fresh inspiration, by utilizing patterns found in other industries.
Returning to why patterns matter, let’s use the example of a pattern for tracking goods through a hospital. Hospitals use tens of thousands of pieces of surgical equipment and supplies each day. They must ensure that every patient procedure begins with exactly what is needed. It is never acceptable for a surgeon to discover that a surgical tool is not in the operating room during a procedure. In the course of a day, equipment and supplies flow through a hospital continuously, representing a major cost in inventory, and the labor to move and manage it. There is a pattern representing this flow, but the pattern itself is neither well-defined nor well-optimized. Yet understanding, and then improving, this pattern could enable a real-time ability to track the location and integrity of individual units, getting everything exactly where it needs to be at exactly the right time. Without that well-functioning pattern, tracking supplies is an error-prone, and ultimately expensive process.
Could a pattern from another industry help? In manufacturing, tracking goods and supplies is at the core of a successful business. Supply chains in these environments are well established, and account for the many challenges normally encountered, including route optimization, end-to-end tracking systems, supplier relationships, and just-in-time delivery. The supply chain is in fact a set of patterns that, although optimized first for manufacturing, hold great promise for healthcare providers to re-think their own challenges.
There is no doubt that transformation is a complicated, confusing, and risky undertaking. Because of that, the bar is high for companies to get to a transformed state in a reasonable timeframe i.e. before their competitors. Worse yet, transformation requires employees working across different organizations to work independently in new and creative ways, yet toward the same company goals. Managing outcomes in that kind of scenario can feel like managing chaos, and it tests the skills of the very best executives.
Using patterns to create order and direction for strategy and execution can overcome the Tower of Babel effect, where disconnected groups lose sight of their purpose within the larger mission. Existing patterns, once identified, can be inspected for leverage points where change can occur. New patterns can be the spark of inspiration for building something new. And the great news is that these patterns are already there. They are just waiting to be seen
In high tech or any role, Jennifer Byrne is an advocate and example of what it means to be an original thinker who can effectively and un-apologetically communicate how aptitude, and action will differentiate you in work, family, community and certainly business. Utilizing wisdom gained from decades in the tech industry, and a lifetime of unlikely adventures, Jennifer is teaching others how to apply different ways of thinking to their own stories, in order to survive and thrive in today’s fast-paced,tech-infused world.