I have been musing a fair bit recently about the critical role that pattern recognition and manipulation plays our thinking, planning and actions.
Very often when we learn something new we think that what we are acquiring is a body of knowledge or a set of rules. In actual practice we are exposing ourselves to new patterns of behaviour. Absorbing and following the pattern is the key to learning how to do something, not following rules and applying algorithms.
This was apparent to me the other day as I worked to instill a key croquet strategy into a relative novice player. The four ball break is a fundamental building block for advanced play and it follows a basic pattern of establishing a pilot ball at the next but one hoop, then using a more or less centrally placed pivot ball to navigate to the next hoop, itself previously loaded with a hopefully well-positioned pilot ball. Successful repetition of this pattern around the lawn can lead to a run of as many hoops as desired. Describing it in words only gets you so far – apologies to those struggling with the above.
In the end you have to play the pattern to get the pattern – and so I was using the coaching approach of alternate stroke play, to demonstrate and embed the various stroke choices required to make the lawn mechanics work. It comes down to a matter of muscle memory, rather than semantic or logical description of the process.
I noted the same dynamic in our Tai Chi session this morning, as we ran through, and then extended, the pattern of movements we have been learning. Again verbal instruction and visual illustration by the group leader only gets you so far – in the end it is only by enacting the routine and getting a feel for what is needed that you can gain some sort of confidence that you understand what is required. Interestingly as the movements start to flow you find that your arms, hands, feet etc. seem to land in the right place almost automatically.
When I first started I very rapidly lost track of where my hands and feet should be and I felt like nothing more than an approximation of a human windmill. Then over time I started to remember what I was meant to be doing, but it felt awkward and jerky. But quite recently and with some private practice I have found the movements flowing and I have felt more and more in tune with the general idea. I have digested and absorbed the pattern, although it must be said in this case at an elementary level. But that’s often what’s interesting about a learning experience: both what you learn and what you learn about learning.
Speaking of learning and teaching, I took part in a novel learning environment at the UTS Hatchery the other week. It involved what was styled as ‘speed mentoring’ in my role as Chief Reinvention Officer of Charles 6.0.
I spoke separately for 15 minutes (strictly to time) with about 8 cross-faculty groups of students engaged in an entrepreneur development program, to help them develop their project proposal. The topics were many and varied, the enthusiasm was palpable and the conversations were interesting. I flatter myself that I was able to add value for many of them, drawing on my varied experiences, which found sometimes unexpected points of contact with their thinking.
The theme of cross fertilizing insights continued the next evening, again at UTS, but this time in what was called a ‘Creative Jam’ held by a group called Imaginate (which happens to be a product of last year’s Hatchery program) in which a mixed group of students and industry participants pondered the question of how to bridge the gap in organisations between ‘creatives’ and so called ‘non-creatives’.
As readers of this blog will be aware, creativity is a topic in which I take some interest and so once again the conversation and considerations were interesting and stimulating. One important point to emerge from our discussions was that the distinction between ‘creative’ and ‘non-creative’ often boiled down to dealing in stereotypes. We use stereotypes as rules of thumb to save on thinking time and energy – we think we detect a pattern and act on it. But the pattern does not reflect reality particularly well and so like most shortcuts they are generally not useful at best and downright misleading or mischievous at worst.
The short cut that stereotyping circles back to my theme of patterns. The utility of patterns in human thinking is speed – but we still need to get them right. We do not algorithmically compute a model of the world around us but rather we hold a map or pattern of the world in our brains which we update periodically, amending it with new or refreshed patterns to better reflect our perception of reality. That can range from an urgent update about the tiger emerging from the jungle (which it is really good to get right, and fast!) to more leisurely updates about Tai Chi routines or improved croquet tactics.
The other insight for me from our creativity jamming was the idea that developed of a ‘creativity stack’ … the idea that the individual creative act in organisation generally sits a project setting, which has itself required some creative thinking, and projects are usually found within a strategic envelope or vision created by general management. So creativity is needed at various levels of an organisation and is not confined simply to those that wield specific artisanal creative skills.
I think creativity can be usefully seen through the pattern lens I’m using in this blog. If you can see the pattern you can use the pattern. With practice you can shape the pattern. Over time you can help the pattern emerge. You can see how patterns in one domain overlap with patterns from another.
Being able to generalize between different pattern sets is a major source of creativity from higher levels of the creativity stack. As I have mentioned in previous blogs I am quite intrigued by potential overlaps between the patterns of Tai Chi and those of croquet. I indeed think that certain elements do cross over, with Tai Chi practice informing improvements in stance, balance, focus and smooth hitting – not necessarily highly creative, just very useful.
With increasing mastery of a particular pattern domain you can devise new patterns or ways of seeing and then for a few the opportunity may arise to devise the patterns of entirely new domains – and that’s a whole new game.