The Essential Skill of Pattern Recognition


Painting by Heidi Lampenius. Esko Kilpi photo

“A lighted match does not cause a fire. Rather, a fire takes place because of a particular combination of elements of which the lighted match is just one.”

The way we want to make sense of the world around us often has to do with causality. The question we ask is what caused “something” to happen. There is a variable, the “it,” that happened, that is now to be explained. In scientific study this variable is regarded as dependent. An independent variable, or variables, that cause it are then sought. This is also the if-then model of management. In organizations, a familiar explanation for success is that a particular manager or a particular culture caused it. But scholars are increasingly pointing out the fact that this view of the relationship between cause and effect is much too simplistic and leads to a limited or even faulty understanding of what was really going on.

What emerges is, paradoxically, predictable and unpredictable, knowable and unknowable at the same time. This does not mean dismissing planning, or management, as pointless, but means that the future always contains surprises that no one can control.


Emergence is often understood as things which just happen and there is nothing we can do about it. But emergence means the exact opposite. The patterns that emerge do so precisely because of what everybody is doing, and not doing. It is what many, many local interactions produce. This is in effect what self-organization means. Each of us is forming plans and making decisions about our next steps all the time. “What each of us does affects others and what they do affects each of us.”

Indefinite number of variables influence what is going on. Almost daily, we experience the inability of leaders to choose what happens to their organizations — or to their countries. The links between cause and effect are lost because the tiniest overlooked, or unknown, variable can escalate into a major force. And afterwards you typically can’t trace back. There is no trail that leads you to an independent variable.


The sciences of complexity challenge the assumption of earlier systems theories that movement in time can be predictable in the sense that X causes Y, or that the movement follows some archetypes. Complexity means a different theory of causality. It is about emergence.

The future of a complex system is emerging through perpetual creation. Complexity is a movement in time that is both knowable and unknowable. Uncertainty is a basic feature. Although the specific paths are unpredictable, there is a pattern. The pattern is never exactly the same, but there is always some similarity to what has happened earlier.

In the end it is about the combination and interaction of the elements that are present and how all of them participate in co-creating what is happening. The big new idea is to reconfigure agency in a way that brings these relationships into the center. The task today is to see action within these connections and interdependencies. We need to move towards temporality, to understand what is happening in time. An organization is not a whole consisting of parts. An organization, or a country, is a continuously developing or stagnating pattern in time.

Recent developments in psychology/sociology have shown that human agency is not located or stored in an individual, contrary to what mainstream economics would have us believe. The individual mind arises continuously in communication between people. The focus should now be on cooperation and emergent interaction based on interdependence and responsiveness to what is actually happening. Looking at communication, not through it, what we are creating together — and what we could create together. Ilya Prigogine wrote in his book “The End of Certainty” that the future is not given, but under perpetual construction:

“Life is about unpredictable novelty where the possible is always richer than the real.”

Credits Ralph Stacey, Ken Gergen, Doug Griffin

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