patterns, analysis, competitive advantage

How to Win with Pattern Recognition

How often do you stop what you’re doing to step back, pull up and look at the patterns of what’s going on in your environment, and ask questions like what’s working, what’s not, and what’s next? The most effective senior leaders I work with take the time and make the effort to regularly engage in a practice of pattern recognition and analysis. Doing that puts them ahead of competitors who don’t by identifying new opportunities to leverage and avoiding being blindsided by emerging trends.

As an executive coach and advisor to senior executives in a wide range of industries, pattern recognition is vital to my work as well. To be an effective coach, I use pattern recognition skills to quickly get up to speed on the context my clients work in and then to help them determine what they need to focus on to be better and better.

Effective pattern recognition is a key learning strategy component for any executive leader. Here are five building blocks for winning with pattern recognition.

Become an Expert in Your Space: There’s no denying that the leaders who do the best job with pattern recognition have deep domain expertise in their given space. They don’t sit on the knowledge they acquired 10,000 hours ago; they commit to continuous learning. Sticking with the homework helps them make connections in the patterns that others miss. 

Narrow the Focus and Broaden the Net: It’s an extremely rare person who can be a pattern recognition expert in multiple domains. Since it takes mental bandwidth to become expert enough in a field to see patterns that others don’t, it’s important to narrow your focus and pick a lane. At the same time, I encourage my clients (and myself) to cast a broad net in terms of their information diet. Taking time to read and absorb information from outside your primary field gives you the opportunity to compare and contrast and make connections that others may not see.

Keep the Receipts: One practice that I’ve found very valuable over the years is to take notes, create worksheets, and journal observations and then keep them. Periodically, as I just did on an annual personal and business planning retreat, I pull them out and review them and look for the patterns. Doing that shows the themes that have come up repeatedly, where progress has been made and what needs more work or a different approach. Whether it’s at a personal or organizational level, keeping the receipts of your patterns, trends, and outcomes can yield valuable insights upon further review.

Set Your Reference Point: Pattern recognition is both an internal and external exercise. You need to spend time and effort on assessing the patterns in the external environment, but you also need to continuously assess the internal patterns of performance within your organization. That analysis is much more meaningful when you set a baseline in time that serves as your reference point for all your analysis going forward.  The hook of a hit song by Matchbox Twenty years ago was the lyric, “Let’s see how far we’ve come.” That’s what the baseline reference point does for you; it lets you see how far you’ve come.

Keep Them in the Loop: Pattern recognition should be a team sport. If you’re the executive leader, make it a habit to engage your team members in a feedback loop where they feel encouraged and confident to regularly share their observations and insights about the patterns they’re seeing. Doing this will keep you from drinking your own bath water and missing important trends because of your own positional, historical, or situational biases.

Does doing all of the above take some self-discipline and work? Yep. Is it worth it in terms of the return on that investment? Absolutely. If you think you have opportunities to be better at pattern recognition, try one or more of the ideas above on a regular basis and observe the difference it makes for you. (Even more pattern recognition. See what I did there?) If you’re already a pattern recognition expert, what have I missed? Please share your best tips in a comment on LinkedIn or send me a note.

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