Obviously we all use our brains, but one things leaders do especially well with their brains is pattern matching. We’re great at seeing, recognising and acting on patterns in the world – and that gives us valuable insights, judgement, and wisdom.
A lot of what we call intuition comes from pattern matching – even if it’s subconscious. For example, you get a routine e-mail from one of your team members about a task she’s working on. It looks like a fairly simple e-mail, just reporting on an interaction with another team member. But you know she’s upset. There’s nothing obvious in the e-mail, but subconsciously you spot something there that’s different from her normal e-mails – in other words, something that doesn’t match her usual pattern.
Or you’re making a presentation to a group, and you stop for questions. You look around the room, and even before somebody raises their hand, you know they’re going to ask a question. You call on them, and they are amazed – because perhaps they didn’t even decide themselves to ask the question! But you spotted something in their posture, or a microexpression on their face, or a tiny change that crossed your subconscious mind and registered as a pattern.
Pattern matching is great because it fast-tracks our decision making. If we drive a different car for the first time, we get the hang of it quickly because most of the features are exactly the same. If we eat at a new restaurant, we broadly recognise most of the items on the menu, even if we’ve never seen exactly those items before. When we recruit somebody new into the team, we have a pretty good idea what they need to know in their induction program.
Pattern matching is a double-edged sword.
Although pattern matching is very useful, it can also get us into trouble, especially in a world that’s changing fast. Some of the patterns that used to serve us can sometimes hold us back – and perhaps even harm us.
Here’s a quick puzzle:
Maria’s father has five daughters: 1. Chacha 2. Cheche 3. Chichi 4. Chocho, and … What is the fifth daughter’s name?
The answer is … (drum roll, please) … Maria. If you said Chuchu, as many people do, that’s because you fell into the pattern matching trap.
Here are three more puzzles (answers at the end of this article):
Puzzle 1: A cricket bat and ball together cost $11. The bat costs $10 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
Puzzle 2: If five men can paint five walls in five minutes, how long does it take for 10 men to paint 10 walls?
Puzzle 3: A fish weighs 500g plus half its weight. How much does it weigh?
Here’s a real-world example.
When I mentor leaders and presenters who are using webinars for the first time, I often find that the more experience you have as a presenter, the more difficult it is to run your first webinar! That’s because the webinar environment is so different, and some of the patterns you have learned don’t work. For example:
- You don’t have those subconscious cues that somebody is about to ask a question.
- You don’t get friendly smiles and nods from the audience when you make a point.
- You can’t tell whether your attempts at humour are working or not, because you can’t hear people laughing (or not!)
- You don’t know whether people are paying attention or not, because you can’t judge from their eyes or posture.
Ironically, less experienced presenters often do better, because they have never learned these patterns. So they just get on with it, and do just fine. But experienced presenters sometimes feel unnerved by it.
So pattern matching is a double-edged sword. It can be powerful and it can be dangerous.
How did you do with those puzzles?
Here are the answers to the three puzzles I posed earlier:
A cricket bat and ball together cost $11. The bat costs $10 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
The obvious answer is $1, and that’s what your pattern-matching brain might say because it sees the $11 and $10 and jumps to a shortcut. But that’s wrong. If you do the maths, the ball is actually 50 cents and the bat is $10.50.
If five men can paint five walls in five minutes, how long does it take for 10 men to paint 10 walls?
Again, if you just used a pattern-matching shortcut, you might say 10 minutes. That’s the obvious pattern, right (5-5-5 should match 10-10-10)? But the correct answer is 5 minutes. If five men can paint 5 walls in 5 minutes, it takes 5 minutes for a man to paint a wall. So if there are 10 men and 10 walls, it still takes 5 minutes. If there are 1,000 men and 1,000 walls, it still takes 5 minutes.
A fish weighs 500g plus half its weight. How much does it weigh?
Again, if you used a pattern-matching shortcut, you might take the 500g and add half of that – which is 250g – to come up with the answer 750g. But again that’s not right. The correct answer is 1kg, and this time I’ll let you figure out why!
Beware the pattern matching trap!
As leaders, it’s tempting to take shortcuts based on patterns we have seen in the past. This is often useful, but it’s sometimes risky. If you want to be more innovative, more flexible, and future-proof your career, your team, and your organisation, be careful not to get caught in the pattern matching trap.
Want to know more about innovation?
There’s more in the Innovation chapter of my book “The Future of Leadership”. This chapter looks at how you can foster innovation in your team and make it part of your regular work.
If you’re interested in the future of leadership – and what it means for you – this book is for you.