The patterns that blind us

Human beings are programmed to see the world in patterns. This is a fundamental coping mechanism. We simply don’t have the capacity to process the full range of information with which we’re constantly being bombarded, so our brains select and filter, and package it up. When they recognise a familiar pattern, it triggers an automatic response. A brake light slows us down. A familiar face causes an emotional reaction (positive or negative).

When you walk around your own home, you know the turns, doorways and steps. You don’t need to think about them. You move quickly and confidently from place to place. But when you visit somebody else’s house for the first time, your movements are much more hesitant. You look around, take in and process a lot of information to help you know where to step, where to turn and how to move about, and that all takes time. Spend a little time there and you will soon be moving around with almost as much ease as at home.

The problem with these patterns is that we simply do not see beyond them. As long as the familiar elements are in place, they blinker us. When my brother-in-law shaved off his moustache, I didn’t notice – and neither did my sister! The pattern was recogniseably his face, with or without the face fuzz. In our organisations, the same blinkers can be very costly. We don’t see information that doesn’t fit the pattern, so changes take us by surprise. We can’t conceive of new ways of seeing things that don’t conform to the pattern, and that stops us letting our imaginations loose.

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