Aug 102017

The Value and Limitations of Pattern Recognition

My father-in-law, who is a doctor by training but now a health care executive, was recently talking about an unusual medical condition that someone in the family was fighting.  He had a wonderful expression he said docs use from time to time:

When you hear hoof beats, it’s probably horses. But you never know when it might be a zebra.

With experience (and presumably some mental wiring) comes the ability to recognize patterns.  It’s one of those things that doesn’t happen, no matter how smart you are, without the passage of time and seeing different scenarios play out in the wild.  It’s one of the big things that I’ve found that VC investors as Board members, and independent directors, bring to the Board room.  Good CEOs and senior executives will bring it to their jobs.  Good lawyers, doctors, and accountants will bring it to their professions.  If X, Y, and Z, then I am fairly certain of P, D, and Q.  Good pattern recognition allows you to make better decisions, short circuit lengthy processes, avoid mistakes, and much better understand risks.  The value of it is literally priceless.  Good pattern recognition in our business has accelerated all kinds of operational things and sparked game changing strategic thinking; it has also saved us over the years from making bad hires, making bad acquisitions, and executing poorly on everything from system implementations to process design.  Lack of pattern recognition has also cost us on a few things as well, where something seemed like a good idea but turned out not to be – but it was something no one around the Board table had any specific experience with.

But there’s a limitation, and even a downside to good pattern recognition as well.  And that is simple – pattern recognition of things in the past is not a guarantee that those same things will be true in the future.  Just because a big client’s legal or procurement team is negotiating something just like they did last time around doesn’t mean they want the same outcome this time around.  Just because you acquired a company in a new location and couldn’t manage the team remotely doesn’t mean you won’t be able to be successful doing that with another company.

The area where I worry the most about pattern recognition producing flawed results is in the area of hiring.  Unconscious bias is hard to fight, and stripping out markers that trigger unconscious bias is something everyone should try to do when interviewing/hiring – our People team is very focused on this and does a great job steering all of us around it.  But if you’re good at pattern recognition, it can cause a level of confidence that can trigger unconscious biases.  “The last person I hired out of XYZ company was terrible, so I’m inclined not to hire the next person who worked there.”  “Every time we promote someone from front-line sales into sales management, it doesn’t work out.”  You get the idea.

Because when you hear hoof beats, it’s probably horses.  But you never know when it might be a zebra!