Patterns are an effective tool for workplace analysis. Find patterns by observing repeating events.
See your playing field more clearly by tracking relevant events. Make notes so that you can look back to see if you can discern habits and trends. Pay at least as much attention to actions that build (positive) as you do to those that erode (negative) your goals and your organization.
When you recognize patterns, that’s helpful information. Use the data to anticipate future challenges and opportunities, to guide yourself and other employees on productive paths by celebrating, repeating, and expanding on positive patterns while you alter or eliminate negative patterns.
People talk about ‘patterns of behavior,’ but when communicating about them, we have a better chance of an objective and productive discussion when we describe what we’ve observed as independent patterns and not labeling another person’s actions as a part of their established behavior or personality.
Arriving late to work, volunteering to help, missing deadlines, cleaning up messes – these are events that can be called behaviors that make an employee appear to be either more or less valuable to the organization. They can just as easily be called patterns and when we recognize and treat them as such, we improve our likelihood of understanding their source and applying that understanding to extending or improving the pattern.
It’s easier to change a pattern than to change behavior because there’s less attachment and greater ease in recognizing the component parts of a pattern.
What to Look For?
Recognizing established patterns and spotting emerging patterns is the data gained by developing your observational skills. That data is useful for extrapolating future behaviors, seeing potential threats, and pouncing on opportunities as they present themselves.
The trick to successful pattern observation is not knowing what you’ll see before you see it. Observers who worry about wrong-doing, ineffectiveness, bad behavior, or poor teamwork will find exactly that in the patterns they observe. Their actions will be informed by needlessly negative and pessimistic conclusions. At the other end of that teeter-totter, observers who don’t like to find problems and are determined should find safe, happy, efficient, cooperative patterns will find – duh, exactly that.
Henry David Thoreau warned us, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
To effectively observe and draw conclusions from patterns, they must be allowed to ‘speak’ to you without the interpretations of your preconceptions. A good pattern observer of necessity becomes an expert in asking objective, non-judgmental questions – first of themselves and then of others, especially others who may have reasons to come to different conclusions. When you already know the ‘Why’ of a pattern, you have probably fooled yourself into a biased observation which leads to suspect conclusions.
Use the ‘curious child’ exercise on yourself to see how many layers of the pattern you can lay bare. A curious child just wants to know “Why?” And when they get that answer, they wonder, “Why?” And the follow-up question to that answer is, “Why?” Going seven why’s deep into a question to find the meaning and value of a pattern is a reasonable journey.
When you think you’ve observed a negative pattern, you owe it to your brain and your reputation to find a possible positive aspect in that pattern. That exploration may help you find the way to improve the negative situation. Likewise, when you’ve observed a positive pattern, look under the surface for the negative possibility – and a potential way to avoid an unforeseen problem.
In other words, practice being a 360-degree observer – see patterns and results from all sides and it will help you reach informed and constructive conclusions.
Avoid ‘Behavior’ Blame
When we’ve observed a series of negative events – such as a team member who frequently ignores customers – treating that those events as a behavior that’s an inseparable part of the person is to make them ‘Wrong.’ When people feel cast in the role of being Wrong, their defensive response turns discussions into fights. By not thinking of the pattern as that person’s inevitable behavior, but focusing discussion just on the observed pattern without blame, it’s easier for everybody involved to look objectively at the pattern and see what they can do to make a change. It’s a largely semantic choice, but addressing a pattern is usually more productive than talking about behavior.
Reaching an agreement for a one-day-at-a-time adjustment in a pattern is a more reasonable goal than getting a realistic commitment for a complete change in behavior.
Your colleagues won’t respond well to blame.
Looking for patterns makes it easier to observe and understand what’s happening. A few weeks after hearing my soapbox speech about recognizing patterns, a trainee sent this email:
It didn’t really make sense when you said to “look for patterns” – until this week. I’d frequently get upset at my boss for being so inconsiderate about last minute, emergency projects. Just before closing time, he’d make me drop what I was doing and put together a report or a slide show that had to be done before I could go home. I’d end up working late – and getting furious!
But I did what you suggested and made a chart of actual events, and it showed me that almost all of his ‘urgent’ projects had come in late Thursday afternoon – and I immediately saw what was causing the pattern. It wasn’t sudden new problems coming up, it was just my boss’s failure to plan ahead. My boss has an early meeting with his boss every Friday and needs something to talk about.
When I realized that, I quit waiting for his Thursday afternoon panic and asked him at the start of the week what he needed for that meeting. Now, I get the assignment with two or three days to complete it, instead of a rushed hour or two – and I do a better job.
The best part of this story was a follow-up email a couple of months later:
Remember me? I wrote about asking my boss what he needed at the start of the week? Well, I got even smarter. I started watching for interesting reports and articles, and instead of asking him what he wants, I tell him what I’ve already got – sales figures, supply projections, market trends … things like that. Every time, he says that’ll be fine. Less work and better results – I like this pattern!
That was a constructive discovery for the employee and a good example of what it means to track patterns and see what you can learn from them. Productivity, quality, complaints, attendance, deliveries, voice mails, hunger pangs, moods – all these can be tracked as patterns and see if a little bit of analysis will yield a better strategy. Have a calendar on which you mark events – a series of events may remain random and unconnected in your memory, but seeing them recorded on your calendar may help you see a pattern. Use color-coding for different categories of events – a pattern of green or red ink may turn into a new understanding and make you look like an analytical genius! Take just a few minutes at the end of the month to review your patterns and see what jumps out.
Track the Team, Not Individuals – except for yourself
Start with tracking your own events and seeing your own patterns. It’s good practice and feels great when you find a way to make things easier for yourself.
When tracking the actions of others, be highly considerate and discreet. What you intend as a constructive and informative exploration for general benefit may be interpreted by others as pushy and intrusive documentation for the purpose of assigning blame. If tracking your colleague’s actions are not part of your job description, you could be violating their rights to a comfortable work environment by paying too much attention to what they do on the job. When tracking actions, track team behavior and include everybody who takes those actions, not just one who you think has a problem.
When you do find an idea for improvement in your pattern recognition, be smart and let the people generating the pattern have the idea. It’s so much easier for them to agree with their idea for self-improvement than for you to sell them on your idea for their improvement – even when it’s the same idea. When it’s their idea, they own the result.
Discuss patterns as objective observations, not sources for blame. Record events with colored ink to make patterns visible. Track groups, not individuals. Review patterns, but don’t over-study; the best ideas come when our brains are relaxed.
“Understanding of life begins with the understanding of patterns.” – Fritjof Capra