Pattern-recognition skills for leaders

One of the biggest challenges many leaders face as they rise to the top is shifting from seeing themselves as problem-solvers to pattern recognisers.

In the strategic system you not only need to see the patters in the market place but in how your organisation respond, in how groups operate and in how people behave. You need to see, evaluate and respond to these patterns at a systemic level instead of responding to particular cases outside the greater context.

Effective leaders have great pattern-recognition skills, and over time build patterns libraries in their minds that enable them to easily spot trends, detect shifts in the organisation and look at issues and opportunities from a much greater distance.

There are many patterns leader could watch for but Eric C. Hansen and Ron A. Carucci identified four major ones that can be great benefit to leaders looking to lead big change.

Historical patterns

Considering the history of an organisation (successes, failures, struggles, growth, and reputation) is critical in predicting how well the organisation may perform in the future. Stepping back and looking at patterns instead of isolated events helps reach decisions about future directions. It doesn’t mean you are using the past as an excuse e.g. “We have tried that before and it didn’t work” it means using the past as reference point for choices about the future change.

Horizontal patterns

There are patterns across the organisation revealing emerging norms that may or may not be desirable. Unfortunately many leaders have the tendency to pick up on anecdotal comments in line with their own preconception (“Everybody” is feeling this way. “I’ve heard from all over the organisation that…”). Instead of digging in, assessing and really understanding what these true patterns are. Leaders often make fairly weak attempts to spot these patterns across the organisation. For example misuse of scattered and unreliable data across the company may not only be about the lack of capabilities but about people being afraid of losing their jobs due to difficult market conditions. The inadequate response from leadership can be to put even more pressure on the system to perform better, which results less useful and accurate the data, as more people feel compelled to make things up. It can also generate distrust and unhealthy competition.

Economic patterns

Economic patters come from looking across a range of data sets e.g. megatrends, sales trends, industry trends, geographic buying patterns, margins, costs, cash reserves etc. to see what of significance emerges. The challenges for leaders are twofold here. Firstly many organisation still lack of analytical capability to spot early economic shifts, both in their market places as well as in their organisations. Secondly many leaders operate with short-term focus and spend way too much time in the operating and coordinating fields instead of in the strategic system.

Cultural patterns

Tons of surveys available today e.g. employee engagement surveys, organisational health surveys, online employee feedback tools, as well as communication devices such as newsletters, town hall meetings, intranet sites, still it is striking the small degree to which the data collected are leveraged to increase the overall health of the organisation or the engagement of employees. Many leaders approach these surveys as a kind of tick the box exercise, delegate it to HR and take the easiest action steps. However, truly understanding the insights about the cultural patterns enable leaders to make strategic choices about how to shape and shift the organisation’s behaviour to ensure that employees from top to bottom are fully participating in optimising performance.

What patterns can you recognise in the history of your organisation before you embark on a new change?

What cultural patterns emerge if you look at the last four employee engagement surveys of your organisation?

How much time do you spend on operative and coordinating stuff instead of looking at your organisation through strategic lenses?

What systematic ways in which you can detect patterns and distortions in the information you are receiving?


Source: Rising to Power: The Journey of Exceptional Executives by Ron Carucci & Eric C. Hansen

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