Patterns help us make sense of the world. Humans have an innate capacity for pattern recognition present from birth. Patterns in colour, texture, shape and sound help us to recognise faces, distinguish words and convey meaning. This basic cognitive process can go wrong as I discovered in 1999. On a consulting job for Argyle Diamonds (now Rio Tinto) in Australia, I started hearing and seeing things that were, shall we say, not relevant to the situation at hand. Imagine walking across the mine site and hearing what the mountain thought about the extraction underway. Real or not, it was irrelevant to the context, inherently untestable and deeply unsettling. I omitted the unusual intel from Argyle’s report, but things deteriorated when I got back to South Africa. I struggled for three years to control a rampant stream of data that had no evident purpose, turning eventually to an old indigenous cure. The training involves rituals that would not have broad appeal, but it locates an on-off switch to get the rational mind back in charge. The option was infinitely better than what my psychologist was offering at the time.
Anyway, that was my introduction to patterns in cognition and Sustainability practice. I learnt the value of pattern-seeking years later when I read Snowden and Boone’s article on the Cynefin Framework. When we do Sustainability strategy, we work with complexity. In this context, no one knows what the future is going to look like: cause and effect can only be deduced in retrospect. We can’t follow best practice or rationalise our way forward, but patterns can help us make sense of what’s emerging. Strategists make use of patterns all the time: market patterns, customer behaviour patterns and competitive patterns. My patterns showed how peers were scaling positive social or environmental impact through the business model.
In the face of a jungle, evolution has taught us to look for patterns. Can you see the pattern below? (Screenshot and idea clipped from Joel Glanzberg‘s website at patternmind.org).
It’s not arithmetical. It’s not morse. It’s not linked to do-re-mi, as one training delegate suggested. It’s simpler than that. (Answer: The letters on the upper line consist of all straight lines and those on the lower line all contain curves. Despite my rough introduction, I did not crack the pattern and no one in my teaching sessions has managed to date. This will probably change because I use Fieldnotes to back up my training and coaching sessions. If you read it here, please don’t answer.)
Once we see a pattern, it’s obvious. Before that, it’s a jumble and irritating when others see it before we do. A company’s intersect with society and the environment is messy. While business leaders generally know the preferable direction for a social/environmental trend, getting the core business to contribute to that is not so obvious. Insight into profit-enabled impact (PEI) patterns helps my clients clarify their next step forward or what The Cynefin Co calls the Frozen II approach to strategy.
In organisations, we improve our pattern-enabled insight through diverse perspectives (i.e. engaging with people who don’t think like we do). Like machines, we improve pattern recognition by seeding the mind’s eye with examples. A good tool could help us do both. This was the idea behind Ideator which is a pattern-based facilitation tool for Sustainability strategy, ideation and awareness. Check it out!