See Patterns, Not Problems

This is the third in a series of blog posts that follows up on Margaret Mead’s famous statement, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”  

  • In Week 1, we talked about ways people come together in an emergent process to work toward a shared goal. (HSD tool: Complex Adaptive Systems)
  • In Week 2, we talked about competing forces that decision makers must balance as they move toward shared action. (HSD tool: Interdependent Pairs)

“To see, understand, and influence patterns” is a phrase that has become a standard talking point in the Human Systems Dynamics (HSD) community. Glenda Eoyang, founder of the field of HSD, has shifted the paradigm for thinking about and taking action in complex challenges. Pattern Logic is the core of that paradigm. It calls us to see the patterns in our systems, rather than feeling stuck by the problems we face. Pattern Logic goes beyond traditional cause-and-effect explanations to provide surprising options for action. This new logic helps us look beyond the whole picture to begin to see the patterns of interaction, decision making, and data that make up the whole.

Sometimes, my clients ask me what I mean when I say “patterns”. Or they say they don’t know how to see patterns around them. Once when a client told me that, I asked her to name two or three essential signs that let her know she had a challenge. She said, “Well, we have a problem with how we communicate. For instance, people don’t get or maybe read the reports we send out. Important information seems to get lost in the system. People are overwhelmed with email that doesn’t feel important or focused. We have too many meetings that take too much time and accomplish too little.” 

My response to her was, "You just named a handful of patterns that describe what you were calling a “problem with communications.” With that level of clarity, I worked with her and her team to sort through the dynamics of those patterns to find options for action.

Then I gave her a tool that we use in HSD to help us see patterns easily. It comes from Soft Systems approaches, and we call it Pattern Spotters. The Pattern Spotters tool offers people a set of sentence stems that they can use to consider their environment, noticing particular details.

Here they are:

It’s such a helpful, simple tool, and yet it can open your eyes to the ways your “problem” is manifesting in your system. Then you can work on those particulars to shift the specific patterns that challenge you.

Try using Pattern Spotters the next time you feel stuck in trying to resolve a problem! If you can name patterns, you can begin to consider ways to shape or influence those patterns, using other HSD-based tools. In the last two posts in this series, I will identify a couple of those tools you can use to influence the patterns you can now see.

Let me know where you see patterns now. Be in touch!


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