How To Start Spotting Patterns In The Conversations You Have


Thursday, 5.33am

Sheffield, U.K.

From where we stand the rain seems random. If we could stand somewhere else, we would see the order in it. – Tony Hillerman, Coyote Waits

One of the things it took me a while to understand is that you never experience the same situation twice.

For example, let’s say you develop a solution for a particular situation – you have a client who needs something doing and you create something that solves their problem.

If you now want to go out and do that for other people the temptation is to scale it, to standardize, to duplicate.

That seems like the sensible thing to do – after all, if you’re making cups you might as well make them all from the one mold.

Now, that way of thinking works fine with products, where a cup is a cup is a cup but it’s less useful when it comes to services.

And the reason for that is that services involve people, and the people in one situation are going to be different from the people in another situation, and the first challenge you will face is that the new set of people will want to know how your solution will work for them in their situation.

With services, then, rather than having a standard approach where you do the same thing for everyone you need to have an approach that is able to cope with variety – which can adapt to the kinds of things people ask for.

That doesn’t mean that you have to start from scratch every time – there are patterns that you can look out for, patterns that you will see again and again and you need to develop the skill to see these patterns by asking questions that reveal them to you and the people around you.

What kinds of patterns will you see?

Virtuous and vicious loops

Loops are things you will see all the time.

They have a variety of names but really it comes down to one thing after another in a circle.

The question is whether the circle is doing well or poorly for you.

For example, if you do something that compounds over time – put money in a savings account, follow a daily routine, go for a walk every day – then you’re probably going to end up better off, achieving more and healthier over time.

And the opposite is going to happen if you keep spending more than you earn, lounge on the sofa all day and chain smoke.

Now, studying loops can take on a fascination of its own, especially when you start looking at interacting loops.

The idea there is that some loops reinforce things while others balance them out, so you end up with this constant, dynamic interplay between things.

And if there is a delay in the process – something happens, you wait, and then something else happens you get oscillations, swings and lots of noise in what’s going on.

Being able to see a loop can take time – which is why you should never react to the first thing you see, but instead follow what happens next and what happens after that.

If you start to see where the connections are and where things go round and round then you’ll be more likely to figure out the point at which intervening is going to be most useful.

Choices and dilemmas

Another thing you will see often is choices and dilemmas – what road to take when you come to a fork.

You perhaps have few truly life changing situations like this – I can remember only a few anyway.

And it does help to have a way to think through the options and complexities and select the best path.

I did use an approach involving decision trees when I made a big choice – whether I should go and do an MBA or stay at work.

I went back to my files to find that decision tree and you can see it in the image below.


What’s interesting is that the actual monetary difference between doing and not doing it is very small in the analysis.

But the process of thinking it through helps you work out which road you really want – but with a clear view of the risks you are taking.

With dilemmas you have a different problem – when both roads lead to problematic outcomes.

In that case you have to take the least worst path and that does involve difficult decisions.

Feedback loops

Another kind of situation you might face is feedback loops, where the output from one thing is fed back into the input of a previous thing.

You’ll often see this in how your manager works with you – when they ask you to rework something because it doesn’t work for them.

But you’ll also see it in your own work – when you do research, work on a paper or a presentation.

You’ll have a first pass and then refine your material based on what you think of the output.

That iterative, feedback led approach is crucial to getting a good piece of work done – no one ever gets it perfect the first time.

You have to build in time for feedback, for review, time to digest and consider and come back and change.

All too often we rush into things, try and get stuff out quickly.

I know I’m one for that – I like writing and creating and then I Want it off my desk,

Re-reading, revising, editing – all those are things that are much less interesting, that take up more energy and that I find hard to do.

But you have to find ways to help yourself do the things you find difficult to do too.

Risk and reward

And that takes us to another pattern, one where we may have more than one way to do something and we have to figure out which one we’re going for.

Or, more importantly, when we’re going for one.

A good example here is the popular idea of a side hustle – where you have your job and you also have income generation on the side.

There are many examples of entrepreneurs who keep going with their main job while working on their own projects in their own time.

You might feel like you have to quit your job and devote yourself entirely to your idea but that’s a big risk.

You’re probably better off trying to get it off the ground while still bringing in an income rather than putting yourself in a that situation where you jump off a cliff and have to build your parachute on the way down.

If you can do both things then you can shift from one to the other when it’s the right time, when you have enough income coming in from your business so that you can give up your job.

That’s a case of balancing the risks you take and the rewards on offer.

Doing this in practice

When you’re exploring a situation or listening to someone you need to start looking out for these patterns.

Where are the loops, the reinforcing or destructive patterns of behavior?

What are the dilemmas – what’s stopping them from moving forward?

Where is the learning and feedback, what should they pay attention to so that they can improve what happens earlier?

And how can they balance and navigate between options?

You won’t really see these things unless you are listening carefully and completely – so it’s worth taking a look at when that doesn’t happen in the next post.


Karthik Suresh

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