Problems into Patterns

To thrive in complexity you have to adapt—quickly and often! You can’t afford to wait for deep analysis or complete data. You don’t have time to take things apart, fix each piece, and put them back together. Even if you could, complex systems are massively entangled and emergent, so fixing parts may not fix the whole.

Newton described a powerful problem-solving method. 1) Define the problem. 2) Name all the parts. 3) Understand the parts. 4) Find the right answer and take the right action. That is great when things are simple. The problem is that most of your real problems are not simple. They have open boundaries, multiple causes, and messy interdependencies. So, even if you had time for Newton’s method—which you don’t—the system and the problem will transform itself before you finish step 1.

When you see your challenge as a “problem,” you automatically look for parts to fix, root causes, and definitive answers. When conditions are right, that works—great! When it doesn’t work, you need a backup strategy.

In these turbulent times, you need another problem-solving approach. One that is fast and flexible, and at the same time allows for uncertainty, massive interdependency, and multiple measures of success. You need to see your challenge as a “pattern.” When you do, you are free to move into Adaptive Action and Inquiry. You need Pattern Logic.

Pattern Logic allows you to see into complex situations without taking them apart. It helps you understand history and possible futures. It welcomes diverse perspectives and parallel explanations. It directly informs action, because you can use what you see to do what you can to get what you never got before.

In HSD we have lots of Pattern Logic models and methods to help you see, understand, and influence patterns in complexity. The CDE Model is the most general. Same and Different is the most simple. The Landscape Diagram is useful for managing systemic change. The Difference Matrix and Generative Engagement balance the energy in relationships. Four Truths and Conflict Circles open dialogue in the middle of conflict. You can find many more useful tools on our website. All of them leverage the power of Pattern Logic to inform perception, sense making, and action when traditional problem solving fails you.

This may sound radical, but it is amazingly simple. These examples may help you see the power and possibilities of Pattern Logic.

If you see employee engagement as a problem, you run surveys, identify gaps, and plan for action. If you see it through Pattern Logic you ask:

  • WHAT places is engagement the greatest? What are they saying in that place about why they’re engaged? What do others say about engagement?
  • SO WHAT lessons can we learn from the patterns of why people are engaged, what they say about their engagement, and what unengaged people are saying?
  • NOW WHAT is a single, immediate, wise action that will encourage these same patterns in other parts of the organization?

If you see vaccine distribution as a problem, you try to fix weak links in the supply chain and convert resistant populations. If you see it through the lens of Pattern Logic you ask:

  • WHAT infrastructure already exists in our system that can be repurposed?
  • SO WHAT will allow us to build additional capacity for future epi- or pandemics at the same time as we respond today?
  • NOW WHAT will inspire and enable people and processes to use their local knowledge to make decisions that benefit the larger system?

If you see failing customer service as a problem, you retrain the bad and reward the good service providers. If you see it in Pattern Logic, you ask:

  • WHAT do customers really need and appreciate?
  • SO WHAT patterns do we see in what they say? So what are constant features of those patterns and what reasonable variations would build on them?
  • NOW WHAT continuous feedback methods will help service providers stay within acceptable boundaries?

If you see culture change as a problem, you convince leaders and managers to change their behavior. If you see culture as a pattern, you ask:

  • WHAT behaviors am I seeing in general?  What are contradictions?  What has surprised me?  What do I wonder? What patterns do we want to see?
  • SO WHAT tensions or competing perspectives exist currently. What other tensions can help us see the underlying differences between what we have and what we want?
  • NOW WHAT is a change in policy, procedure, practice, or people that will leverage those tensions and provide impetus to shift the system into a new cultural pattern?

If you see racism as a problem, you point out privilege and police what people say. If you see it as a pattern, you ask:

  • WHAT do people in marginalized groups need to feel safe and productive in our community?
  • SO WHAT are we doing today—individually and collectively, through policy and procedure—that constrains their safety and productivity?
  • NOW WHAT can I/we do to change expectations and behaviors to create safety and increase patterns of safety and productivity around here?

Adaptive Action, Inquiry, and Pattern Logic may be simple, but they are not easy. They require intention, attention, and practice. Here are some guides you may find useful as you develop Pattern Logic muscles for yourself and your team.

  • Sometimes you need to depend on Newton to solve simple problems. Even within the most complex patterns, you will find solvable problems. When you do, use more traditional approaches to solve them as quickly and efficiently as you can.
  • The more complex the pattern, the more information you need about what people are saying and doing to see it well, understand it in useful ways, and to influence it effectively.
  • Various constraints in the system—time, access, funding, agreement—will affect how explicit you can be about using Pattern Logic. Always consider what is fit for function, given current circumstances and opportunities.
  • No one can do someone else’s Adaptive Action. When you speculate about how someone else might shift a problematic pattern, you are wasting your time and energy. Focus on the patterns you and your colleagues can influence.
  • The pattern-shifting process of Adaptive Action never ends. Each action transforms the current pattern to create the next one. In that moment, current becomes past, future becomes current, and you begin the next cycle of seeing, understanding, and influencing patterns in complex systems.
  • There is no “perfect” analysis of a pattern in a complex system. Some will be more true and useful than others, but you will never know ahead of time what will be the best. Make your best guess based on what you know, watch what happens, and whatever happens, begin your next pattern-shifting cycle of Adaptive Action.  

We believe effective leaders and problem solvers use Pattern Logic intuitively. Over time, trial and error has taught them the power of patterns, and they use Adaptive Action and Inquiry implicitly. But even they benefit from an explicit process and practical discipline of human systems dynamics. For the rest of us, Pattern Logic can unleash a new way to engage with the world. We build comfort and capacity for complexity when we change problems to be solved into patterns to be shifted. Join us as we continue to teach and learn these practices in our HSD community.

Glenda Eoyang, PhD, HSDP

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