If you want to see new opportunities for your business and increase your decision-making speed and accuracy, begin by looking outside your own business—even outside your industry—at trends and patterns that you can apply to your own organization. Ask yourself, “How do others do what they do?” The fact is that you can learn from observing others companies’ patterns of how to change, and in turn solve problems, make decisions, and grow your business faster than ever before.
A failure to recognize an impending problematic pattern can be just as devastating to a Mom & Pop business as it is to a hospital or NASA or to a CEO’s career. Enron had a pattern of corporate corruption and failure of personal responsibility. MCI had a pattern of bad investment and then later fraud to cover those bad investments. All of these things were patterns which we can look back on in retrospect, as the books are open for everybody, and from outside industries we can say, “It was obvious this was happening.” And yet the people inside the industry, the “experts,” were looking at the same patterns and could not see them. They lacked perspective from the outside, just as we, in our own industries, can fail to have the perspective on ourselves that others may have of us.
So how can you improve your pattern recognition skills to enhance your business? Consider the following:
Look beyond your own niche. You must be able to pull back your blinders to recognize those patterns that tell you something has changed or is about to change. Within your own company, you may have great pattern recognition and the ability to anticipate what’s going to come next, but if you can’t see outside your company’s bubble, you may be left in the same situation that IBM was in 1978. They only looked at their own company’s patterns and did not see the coming of the personal computer. Over at Apple, though, Steve Jobs identified patterns beyond the horizon, hired Bill Gates, and started a new company…and a revolution. If other industries ultimately serve a similar purpose to yours, then even if they seem radically different than yours, their operating patterns may still be applicable. For example, health care has in recent years begun adopting the safety models used in the airline industry. Like doctors and nurses, pilots and air traffic controllers are among the few in their industry who have ultimate responsibility for a large number of lives. Many more support people are responsible for making certain that the pilots are able to do their jobs safely and effectively: the mechanics, the flight attendants, and the gate agents. When the medical industry identified that it had a problem with safety (too many unfortunate situations were overlapping and people were dying as a result), they looked outside their own industry, to those where the stakes are very high and where a single error, if not caught, could result in not one death but 500. They learned that in the airline industry, everyone—from the lowliest mechanic or carpet sweeper, all the way up to the captain—has the authority to say, “Stop that plane!” if they have reason to believe a safety issue has arisen. Importing this and other patterns gleaned from the airline industry will be a long process for the medical industry but one that will ultimately lead to greater safety and efficiency. Trust patterns, not data. If you’ve been wearing blinders for awhile, you may find it difficult to trust your instincts, even when you have identified patterns within your own business and beyond. Your natural tendency will be to look for data that will back up the pattern you’re seeing. If you do this, though, and the data doesn’t support the trend, that doesn’t mean you were wrong in your initial identification of the pattern. Data simply can’t predict the future; it can’t tell you where your business is headed, only reinforce what you already know about your business’ past. Data can tell you that profits are down or have leveled off, but only pattern recognition can give you a new perspective on your business and help you decide what to do to reverse trends and solve problems. Use your eyes, then analyze. Albert Einstein said that the ultimate insanity is to continue to do what you’re doing and expect a different result. Perhaps you’ve identified a pattern that you want to adopt, but you don’t want to make significant changes just to make changes, nor do you want to take action with only guesswork to back you up. First, you must have the ability to recognize what’s wrong. When you look at your business’ financial picture, for example, what do you see? If it’s not what you expect, what do you do? Supplement this analysis with the extra patterns you’ve added to your repertoire in your exploration of other businesses and industries. The perspective you gain from having these extra patterns to reference will give you a twofold gain: 1) With enough patterns, you’ll be able to see that the financial picture isn’t right, and 2) you’ll have a sense of what changes you can implement to make the situation better by borrowing patterns from other industries and adapting them to your situation. Mimic, then make them your own. When NASA experienced the space shuttle accidents, the first thing executives did was to look back at where patterns failed. They discovered that a culture of silence had evolved at NASA. So they went outside of their industry and got experts in communications and team-building to teach them new patterns that enabled them not just to team-build, but also to teach them new patterns they could mimic. The experts enabled NASA to learn what the pattern looks like when a team is beginning to fail and to emulate new, more effective problem-solving patterns. Now they can recognize when the teams begin to fail and communication lines are crossed so the opportunity for absolute disaster is less likely to occur. When you’re making an adopted pattern your own, don’t make a deliberate effort to change it around or adapt it to your business. You’ll find that if you fully internalize a pattern, as it becomes a part of your behavior and thought process, then your brain will automatically take any aspects of the pattern that are not particularly useful to you and set them aside, so that the pattern, though adopted from elsewhere, works for you. At that point, the pattern truly becomes yours; you have broadened your perspective and added additional facets or directions from which you can see still new vantage points. Passing the patterns down. While your company’s culture will determine whether one leader learns this process or a group does, a group is ideal. You want any shift in paradigm for the organization to be a unified shift. Therefore, all of your core decision makers should learn new patterns simultaneously so as not to create the appearance to those below them that the senior executives are all headed off willy-nilly in some new, weird direction. So, as you develop a culture of mimicry in your organization, the rank and file will learn new patterns by simply mimicking the behaviors of those who lead.
Pattern Recognition + Positive Actions = Excellent Results
When you’ve built up your storehouse of borrowed patterns and perfected the processes of mimicry and internalization, you’ll see a myriad positive results occur. Among other things, you’ll learn that you are able to discern when something is not only different, but good-different—a positive shift that benefits your business. When that happens, resist any temptation to mess with it and instead ride it out. Likewise, should you identify a negative pattern approaching, you can take proactive steps to head it off at the pass. Either way, your business will benefit from your new pattern recognition skill, and your company’s bottom line will soar.