Spark 1 – How to think more strategically: recognise the pattern

Author: George Liacos

How to think more strategically: recognise the pattern

Well now that we know the strategic thinking problem, what do we do about it?

We build our strategic thinking muscle using a range of techniques and tools as outlined in my book Spark Change.

The first Spark I’d like to introduce you to is Pattern Recognition.

Pattern recognition is a cornerstone of strategic thinking in any context. It is the intuitive ability to identify recurring themes or trends amidst a sea of information. This cognitive skill allows us to see similarities or regularities in verbal or numerical information, images, or just about any kind of input we receive. This ability to identify patterns is pivotal in making informed, impactful decisions.

The genius of pattern recognition lies in its simplicity; it enables us to construct a coherent narrative from scattered fragments. It’s a framework to map out the past, understand the present and, most critically, to anticipate the future.

It’s easy to devolve pattern recognition into a data-centric scientific practice, but it’s not just about tech algorithms and historical data. What I am saying is that in strategic thinking, pattern recognition is about blending data, lived experience, and expert opinion in a dynamic way so that you can sense patterns.

Pattern recognition is an innate cognitive process, deeply rooted in the intricate workings of our neural pathways. It’s an inherently human thing that we take for granted – it’s the core of our intuition. Our brain, a marvel of evolutionary biology, is hardwired to discern patterns from the barrage of stimuli it encounters. Detecting recurring sequences in nature, like the rustle of leaves signalling a predator’s approach or the visual pattern of a venomous snake, allowed for quicker, life-saving reactions.

In today’s complex world, pattern recognition underpins our ability to make sense of vast amounts information, be it in recognising market trends, deciphering social cues or, as I’ve often witnessed, crafting strategies that resonate with an organisation’s core ethos.

Example of ‘pattern recognition’

As an example of pattern recognition at work, and having a real world impact – let’s look at the example of some work we did with Lifeline.

I do a lot of work in the mental health and health space. One significant contributor in Australia is Lifeline, who work in the complex and ever-changing field of crisis support and suicide prevention. Lifeline found itself facing some difficult challenges. The organisation was dealing with an overwhelming number of calls but had a limited understanding of the dynamics behind them. Yes, this was a systems and data issue, but the solution is where the utility of pattern recognition came into play.

Lifeline started by analysing their extensive data on calls and caller behaviour. They quickly identified that certain times of the day had increased activity and that specific language used by callers was a clear indicator of immediate need. By recognising these patterns, Lifeline was able to optimise their staffing during high-traffic times and create a rapid response protocol for high-risk calls. The results were impressive: Lifeline increased their call-handling efficiency by over thirty per cent and improved the accuracy of their interventions.

An important aspect of this tale is that in understanding this pattern, there was also work undertaken to understand the context within which they were working. Would it change moving forward or would it stay the same? Remember, while patterns from the past help us understand and craft intuitive solutions, we can only rely on those intuitive solutions if the context is roughly the same.

Everyone has different ways to look at a problem – I personally see concepts as pictures in my mind’s eye. I rotate and move these mental images around, looking for patterns, links, gaps or new insights.

I know that not everyone thinks like this, but my little example is meant to convey the sense that you access solid data, lived experience and expert opinion and assess them together – by moving and shifting your perspective and looking for a pattern.

How to start thinking more strategically with ‘pattern recognition’

So, how do you start thinking this way? I recommend following these steps:

  1. Get your mind into ‘intake mode’. Be ready to just take on as much information as you can cram in without feeling overwhelmed. For me it’s a conscious activity to calm, breathe and open my mind.
  2. Gather and review the stimulus material (data, lived experience, expert opinion, contextual and environmental analysis).
  3. Try to whiteboard the key concepts that come to you – freestyle a mind map.
  4. Force yourself to think about other problems you have worked on and strategies you have developed that might relate to this one and add them to the mind map. Do this by listing them out, thinking about each for a moment and then trying to find links or lessons learned.
  5. Step back from the whiteboard, but don’t try to read it. Your brain will take it in all by itself.
  6. Pick up the pen and start capturing what comes to mind.

After some practice, these steps will happen so fast you won’t have to think about them. No whiteboard and no mind map. You’ll be like a seasoned physician who can probably diagnose your ailment before you reach the chair in their consulting room. This is heightened pattern recognition.

Tools to enhance ‘pattern recognition’

So how do you build the tools and techniques to enhance your own pattern recognition skills? I’m glad you asked! Here are some techniques to strengthen your pattern recognition muscle:

  • Strategic journaling: Regularly write down strategic observations and questions, reviewing them to spot recurring themes affecting decisions.
  • Mentorship: Learn from a mentor skilled in strategic thinking for insights and guidance on recognising and utilising patterns.
  • Neuropsychological assessments: Use tests to evaluate and enhance your pattern recognition abilities.
  • Mindfulness practices: Engage in mindfulness and meditation to improve focus and awareness, aiding in pattern detection.
  • Critical thinking education: Enrol in critical thinking courses to question assumptions and analyse information, boosting pattern recognition.
  • Practice: Regularly dedicate time to observe and identify patterns in everyday life, enhancing awareness and skill in pattern making.

Resources & Support

This is why I wrote the book Spark Change, developed the Strategic Thinking Masterclass, and have released The Spark Strategic Leader ™ Subscription Program – all to help our sector’s leaders build the strategic thinking muscle.

Contact us at to find out more.

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