As a teenage, Christine LeGarde, the current Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) competed as a member of the French national synchronized swimming team. In an interview with National Public Radio, the reporter pointed out that LeGarde had often compared her IMF role with being a member of her synchronized swimming team. I found the incongruity of the comparison striking.
I first thought about the human capacity to make connections; it’s almost like the set-up of a joke: How is international monetary policy making like synchronized swimming? Then I thought about the connections we make between distinct ideas or different phenomena on which we base conclusions that have greater consequences than analogies made for literary effect. For example, one endeavor that calls upon our ability to see connections is organizational strategy formation.
Understanding the art and science of strategy formation is a topic of intense interest to researchers and practitioners eager to help organizations make choices under conditions of uncertainty and competition. In the 1990s, strategy researchers like Henry Mintzberg argued that strategy is not planned, but rather crafted out of the thought processes and perspectives of organizational actors. Alongside the shift in focus from an analysis of markets to an understanding of the processes that contribute to strategy, extensive academic literature has been dedicated to defining a list of strategic thinking skills.
One skill that most lists of strategic thinking skills includes is Patterning. Patterning is the skill of connecting the dots, the ability to discern a theme shared by a preponderance of variables. Patterning is what happens when detectives solve crimes by putting together clues. The skilled strategic thinker recognizes a data point as a clue where others might simply see an arbitrary bit of information.
It’s one thing to solve a crime (that has happened in the past) by looking for clues. It’s quite another thing to formulate a theory about what will happen by interpreting patterns as they emerge. Skeptics often claim that one can only assess the quality of strategic thinking retrospectively. After all, until we see how things play out, patterning (a skill we want) and confirmation bias (a mistake we should avoid) describe pretty much the same metal process.
Is there a pattern or variables that includes monetary policy-making and synchronized swimming? I guess that depends on what it means to say that a pattern is real. Our language with respect to patterning can mislead. When we talk of pattern recognition we seem to be saying that a pattern exists and is recognizable to anyone with the intellect to make the right connections.
An alternative interpretation of the skills of patterning leans on a view that making connections and describing patterns is a natural human activity that contributes to our ability to make sense of the world. That I notice connections among variables, ideas, and phenomena doesn’t tell me something about the world, it tells me something about me. I don’t think much about synchronized, so the odds are low that I would make any connections between the sport and the IMF.
Before organizations can set direction for the future, it will be important for organizational leaders to engage in a philosophical conversation about the status of patterns. At one extreme, emergent patterns are out there and the first organization that can discern a meaning behind emergent phenomena will have a competitive advantage. At the other extreme, emergent patterns are created by social and cognitive activities of organizational actors. The coherence and legitimacy of the pattern determine how committed people will be to making choices that in the end create a future that allows the connections among the variables to make sense.
Either things are more synchronized than we think, or things are more synchronized because we think.