Seeing the Patterns

This has always been a special time of the year for me.  School ends, summer begins and things just seem to get a little more relaxed.  Growing up in the Midwest, the Indy 500 was a great spectacle over the Memorial Day weekend.  I love the ceremonies for the lost members of the armed forces, the pageantry and the “Back Home in Indiana” song.  More than anything else, I was amazed by how fast the drivers could drive with 32 other drivers going around a 2.5 mile track.  Wow.

Over the last several years, I have done a lot of work and reading on talent development.  Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success and many others discuss the 10,000 hour rule.  As a reminder, this is the concept where it takes this much time doing just one thing before you really become extremely competent.  To me, the most fascinating part of all this talent research work is the concept of patterns.  Whether or not this is a physical phenomena that can be seen in brain structure is beyond me, but the principle is still sound.  With many hours of practice you are able to accomplish things with little thought that before took deliberate thinking for every step.  Race car drivers, like those at Indy, due to all their practice are able to drive so confidently at such high speeds because they know the patterns.

Since most of us won’t ever drive that fast, perhaps a couple other examples might help.   Typing or keyboarding is a very interesting skill.  At first you have to think about where every letter is and the keyboard is designed in some crazy way that makes it tough to hunt and peck.  Over time you start to see the patterns and your speed increases to unimaginable levels without even thinking where each of the letters are located.  Playing a musical instrument is the same thing.  The key is to start to see these patterns in your job.  It is impossible to succeed and advance in your career if you need to “search for the keys” when making every decision.

When I started in marketing there were incredible leaders running our group.  They saw all the patterns and passed these along to each of us.  Every day when I came to work journal articles were cut out, key points underlined and questions were asked about how these points fit with our plans.  Comments were written on market research reports.  Skill development was deliberately guided by those who ran the group.  I recognize that in today’s world, things seem to be more complex.  Everything is online at all times and there is less opportunity to emphasize what is important.  The concern is that in the old days what was being pointed out were the patterns that accelerated learning and growth.  By underlining, circling and questioning key points our leaders were really showing us the patterns.

There was an interesting blog out this week that talks about the recent multi-billion dollar mistake at JPMorgan and how Jamie Dimon, their CEO, might have minimized it by digging deeper into the business.  The blog says if you are not micromanaging then you are not leading.  The key concept is that leaders need to dig into the data and not just rely on overviews from their people.  To me it really is about patterns.  Dimon, through his years of experience, could have looked at the trade data, recognized patterns, stopped the problem and guided his people through a difficult situation where perhaps they did not recognize the patterns.  There is an art to digging deep while at the same time allowing others to do their job.  Great leaders know how and when to do both.

The early years in marketing are often quite frustrating in that it really does take time to figure out the patterns.  Huge amounts of time are spent just doing routine type work and even this feels like hunting and pecking on a keyboard.  Things are just not automatic yet.  Product managers are flooded with information, requests and lots of work and they haven’t had the time to really figure out the patterns.  It feels to them like they just finished driver’s training and now find themselves in the middle of the Indy 500 race just hoping nobody runs them over.  You see, 10,000 hours is a long time.

Perhaps the best way to speed development is to constantly be thinking about and looking for patterns.  Talk about this within the department, look for patterns when reading marketing articles and talk to outsiders about it.  To add to this challenge is the fact that the environment is changing so rapidly.  For those who have been in marketing a long time this is a fun and exciting challenge, but for those who are starting out, this adds to the chaos.  Having a solid grasp of the principles or patterns will make this much easier to control as the patterns often remain the same even though the race situation may change.  Just recognizing this concept makes the entire thing start to make more sense.

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