Pattern Logic

It is a great day! You have a new job, in a new industry, and a new city. You show up the first day, and from the time you step through the door, you are in a whole new world. You search for the familiar in everything that is new. Are there people you know or software systems you’ve used? How are people dressed and how do they interact? Who can you trust to know what’s up and to share it with you? Do you know the acronyms or the inside jokes? What about your boss, colleagues, internal and external clients? All day, you search for patterns, you try to make sense, and you do things to become a part of this strange new world.

You are using Pattern Logic.


In any new situations—relationship, location, project, or technology—you work at the edge of your known universe until the new universe becomes known. This space of transition is one where you learn by trial and error. You see things and judge whether they are similar to or different from what you knew before. As you watch others interact, you begin to find out “what matters around here.” Engaging with others, you establish relationships that inform your actions and keep you safe while you explore the unknown.

This transition is a liminal time, when the world as you knew it has gone away, and a new one has not yet emerged. It can be a time of creativity and opportunity, as well as one of real and perceived danger. What was logical before may not be true or useful anymore. Rules of thought and action change, but you don’t know yet exactly how they will be different. Habits that were helpful yesterday become risks for the future. Logic as you knew it breaks down, and something else takes its place.  

In HSD, we help you deal with the intractable issues that appear in this chaotic space of transition. We use lessons from nonlinear dynamics and complexity science to define tactics to deal with uncertainty. HSD helps you make sense and take action when you cannot rely on what you used to know for sure.

HSD-inspired adaptive capacity is based on two principles. We have talked about the first, Adaptive Action, many times before. It is an iterative problem-solving approach that includes three questions:  What? So what? and Now what? Wherever you are, however strange your environment, these three questions will help you find your next wise action and keep you moving forward.

The second principle of adaptive capacity in HSD is what we call Pattern Logic. It is the ability to discover meaningful patterns in strange and unpredictable situations. You use Pattern Logic intuitively. When you enter a strange space, like a new job, you spontaneously search for patterns to influence how you think and act and speak in the new space. When you become conscious of this process—when you learn Pattern Logic—you can work with more ease and confidence. You can enter into a new situation knowing that you have the capacity to adapt quickly and well.

Though Pattern Logic is incredibly powerful, it is also amazingly simple. Three processes combine to build the capacity to see, understand, and interact with patterns.

Discover the boundaries that define the space. What belongs together? What are the clusters of things that are the same? What are the groups, areas, spaces that are set apart in some way from others?  Where are the walls, and what are the doors and windows? In Pattern Logic, we call these containers. They can be physical—like real walls or cubicles. They can also be social, political, emotional, informational. Anything in the space that divides the “same” from the “other” functions as a container in Pattern Logic.

Containers are many and varied and massively entangled in any situation. Even when you have been around for a long time, you may still trip over organizational or cultural barriers you didn’t know existed. Being conscious of containers is a capacity for thriving any place or time, not just in situations that you know are new and challenging. Political acumen is the ability to create, respect, or cross boundaries and the wisdom to choose when to do which.   

Find the differences that make a difference. Any human system includes more differences than you can count. On the first day of work, for example, you pay attention to language, location, colors, light, expectations, relationships, values, instructions, HR procedures, where to find the lunchroom, whether people are smiling and how loudly people speak. These and thousands of other differences inundate every minute of your first day on the job. In HSD, we refer to these system characteristics as differences.

In any new space, you don’t know which differences are important, so you don’t know where to focus. It can feel like you are in the middle of a sandstorm—seeing lots of things and not knowing which ones to pay attention to. As you use your Pattern Logic, you will focus on a few significant differences. They will help you see what is happening and make decisions about what to think and do.

It is important to remember that the differences that make a difference change all the time. Even after you are familiar with a situation, critical differences will change without warning. In a simple example, budget might be most important when you are talking to your boss, while schedule matters to team members, and quality concerns the customer. The significance of differences is based on context, and because contexts change all the time, so do the differences that make a difference. Pattern Logic helps you pay attention to see and respond when significant differences shift.  

Explore connections between and among. People are always connected, sometimes to things or ideas and sometimes to each other. Those connections, which we call exchanges, determine when and how things change. When exchanges are tight, things change slowly. When people hold strong beliefs, value close relationships, or have a sense of permanent place, exchanges are tight, so change will be slow. Curiosity, low intimacy, and transience signal weak exchanges, so change can be fast and unpredictable.

The sooner you see and understand the natural connections in a space, the more prepared you are to engage consciously and with intention. That is why exchanges are such a significant aspect of the adaptive capacity that comes from Pattern Logic. Like containers and differences, exchanges are many and constantly changing. Only Pattern Logic can help you recognize and engage wisely in connections that are important for you and your group.  

These three conditions—containers, differences, and exchanges—constitute what we in HSD call a pattern. Being able to use patterns to make meaning and take action is what we call Pattern Logic. This capacity, along with Adaptive Action, is the key to thriving in strange and unpredictable situations. They are the heart and soul of HSD. All of our conceptual foundations, practices, models, and methods support you as you build your Pattern Logic and develop your own competence and adaptive capacity.

So, the next time you enter an unfamiliar space or face an intractable challenge, step beyond your intuition or traditional logics and embrace the emergent power of Pattern Logic. You will see, understand, and influence, even when you cannot possibly predict or control.

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