What toddler tantrums tell you about work conflicts – Or: The risks and benefits of being a pattern thinker

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"I'll teach you how to deal with your colleagues" (copyright by lovelornpoets on flickr)

And what is a pattern thinker anyway? Well I came up with this description when trying to understand why Net-Map is so easy and intuitive for some and difficult to learn for others. I realized that it’s not so much about whether you are more of a left brain or right brain person, whether you think in numbers or stories (quantitative vs. qualitative), but it’s about being able to see patterns.

A friend recently told me about her problems at work. I saw a pattern that my toddler daughter often shows as well (throwing a tantrum because she feels not in control, because I don’t give her a way to contribute) and we developed solutions for the work conflict by thinking about what works with my daughter (e.g. giving people tasks they can handle, allow them to contribute, even if you suspect you could do this faster/better on your own). So, pattern thinkers strip away most of the details (in this case: the age of all involved, their individual personalities, the content of the conflict etc.) to hone in on a structural similarity, asking: Where are these two very different scenarios similar and can I learn from one for the other? I have read research that claims that most of what we call intuition is actually just a way of recording, storing and activating patterns from experience – and the brain does this faster than you can watch, you just know: “This is (not) gonna work!” without quite knowing where this knowledge comes from. That’s why most people get more intuitive as they grow older and store more experience.

I come from a family of pattern thinkers, my father being the mathematical thinker, seeing patterns in numbers, letters… and politics for that matter. My mom is more of the story pattern thinker: Tell her any human interest story and she will predict (with 90% accuracy) how it will end. Annoying and scary for a teenager growing up – impressive now. And remembering how I saw their ways of thinking when I was a teenager made me understand a major risk of being a strong pattern thinker: Once you see that you are right so many times in your prediction, you stop allowing for the 10% of times that things don’t follow the pattern, you stop believing that things and people can change, your view of the world becomes static because you expect the future to follow the same rules that you have seen in the past. Seeing patterns reduces risk (because you know what kind of situations to avoid) but also might keep you from taking those healthy risks that can change the world, change the rules. This might be why a lot of innovation and revolutions are started by rather young people, who have not lived long enough to collect so much evidence that change won’t work anyway…

So, the question is: How can you hone and use your ability to see patterns without discounting for the 10%? Or, to move this from the (made up) quantitative to the more qualitative description of the same question: How can you become a skeptical optimist instead of becoming a cynic?

And: Yes, I do see the irony of describing the risks and benefits of pattern thinking from a pattern thinking perspective…

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