Pattern Recognizers and Solution Simplifiers

Stephen DeAngelis

June 01, 2006

Thanks to Critt Jarvis (Connecting in Conversation) and Mark Safranski (Zenpundit) for initiating a very interesting discussion on network resiliency and how cognition relates to it. Safranski references a blog about neurolearning written by Drs. Fernette and Brock Eide. I would also like to tie the discussion to my earlier blog about the Medici Effect. If I understand the Eides correctly, some complex thinkers create a mini-Medici Effect in their minds. Here’s how. The Eides describe two types of high-level thinkers — vertical and horizontal thinkers. Vertical thinkers, according to the Eides, are “experts who have mastered (whether through skill, or knowledge, or both) finite intellectual or artistic domains.” In other words, these are thinkers who have adapted to the explosion of information by concentrating on a particular specialty. Such thinkers are absolutely essential for advancing knowledge in the various fields of science. Horizontal (or complex) thinkers, on the other hand, “tend to be transdisciplinary.” They are horizontal thinkers because “their thinking is more pattern-related and iterative rather than logically related in a casual chain.”

We normally think of creating a Medici Effect by bringing vertical thinkers together in a group to generate innovative solutions to a particular problem or to generate entirely new thinking. I would be willing to bet that individuals who successfully facilitate those gatherings are, more often than not, horizontal thinkers. Most successful analysts are pattern recognizers. They see similarities, use analogies, and draw from every corner of the human experience to make their points. As a result, they are interesting people to be around. People pay just to hear the connections they make — and they are worth every penny. Horizontal thinkers see and understand horizontal scenarios better than other people. What does this have to do with resiliency? A lot.

If you know the history of Enterra Solutions, you know that I started it in the wake of 9/11 when a friend of mine told me that the government needed a way to “connect the dots,” meaning a way to tie disparate information into an actionable picture. As I looked at the problem, I realized that that macro-need was mirrored on a micro-level within businesses. Most businesses have intentionally set up vertical organizations. By that I mean they have separate siloed departments that deal with specific, specialized functions. As I have argued repeatedly, however, today’s paradigm requires horizontal sharing of information across department boundaries.

There is a pattern emerging for dealing with complexity — for being resilient. That pattern underscores the importance of horizontal thinking, horizontal organizations, and horizontal action. As Safranski writes:

Complex thinkers are also well placed to propose solutions or plans of action in a chaotic environment as their “transdiciplinary” perspective is essentially a bias toward horizontal thinking, looking across multiple domains to see the interconnections, parallels, analogies and symmetries. Organizations that emphasize promoting individuals of this type will be likely to be more resilient and creative in adapting to change.

By no means does that denigrate the importance vertical thinking (which furthers knowledge), vertical organizations or industries (which promote efficiency), or vertical action (which responds to vertical scenarios), but it does underscore the fact that within and between organizations more (not less) horizontal interaction needs to take place. Every organization needs a horizontal thinker who can make sense of these relationships and help establish a proper balance between them. Why? Because, if the Eides are correct, horizontal thinking may be a capability that is either learned early in childhood or is simply innate. The Eides write:

… there are budding complex thinkers that we sometimes see as children. They are often identified as bright and having unusual questions, but may not shoot to the top of their class because they seem to be dabbling or in no particular hurry toward mastery. These students may blossom in the right environments or with the right stimuli – complex game playing scenarios, the medical ICU, comparative history scenarios, business innovation, or financial markets.

Tom Kelly in his best-seller The Art of Innovation calls these kind of people “crossdressers.” Don Cohen and Laurence Prusak (In Good Company) call them “boundary-spanners.” Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point) calls them “connectors.” You get the idea. These people recognize patterns and then make connections that others don’t generally see. They give us “wow” moments.

The Eides also discuss another kind of thinking that is critical to resiliency and that is simplification. As noted by the Eides:

Successful problem solvers in complex scenarios start off in story and context mode – relying on similarities in experiences and situations to help make decisions about unknowns- this usually changes with time – so that experiences become grouped and linked into patterns and rules. Ultimately this results in simplification, but requires different processes of selection and comparison, so we expect to see a shift to more conventionally analytical areas.

Much of what Enterra is pursuing involves this latter type of thinking — helping take complex problems, finding the patterns, understanding the rules, and then automating those rules in horizontal processes to make organizations more resilient. It is the marriage of pattern recognition and solution simplification. The kind of people who are best at explanatory thinking (that is, rules simplification) are described by Gladwell, Cohen, and Prusak as “mavens.” They not only like to explain things to others but, according to Gladwell, they can’t help themselves.  One of the Eides wrote:

Last night, I was just reading an excerpt from Ben Franklin’s autobiography, and was impressed that when he was a teenager, he also found it necessary to take notes from great works he had read, then rewrite them in simplified (and at times more colorful) terms. It’s probably no accident that this practice pops up in many other biographies of innovative thinkers (Robert Hooke also comes to mind) – it can be a more creative or synthetic process than we might think.

One of the things that attracted me to Tom Barnett’s thinking (and ultimately ended up in my hiring him) was his appreciation for both horizontal thinking and the importance of rule sets. It is a powerful combination. As the world becomes more complex, the combination of horizontal thinking and rule set automation is going to help individuals, organizations, and societies succeed. You can count on it.