Photo by Lurm

Unpacking pattern language

The secret way the world already works and how we can make it work at work

Why should we care about shared language?

I’m never surprised to find that language in an organization is used quite differently from individual to individual and group to group. With so many unique cultures, perspectives and contexts it’s natural for some people to use the same word and mean different things, or have different words to describe the same thing. There can even be personal or cultural differences on the importance of language precision: how much grammar matters, how rigidly we hold onto definitions, how much we desire to name things, and so on.

An underlying principle in working together though is sharing language, understanding one another. Without a shared language we miscommunicate with one another, create unrealistic expectations, waste time and money, become frustrated, and sometimes even fail terrifically. We see this in our relationships, too. It hurts when we feel unheard or misunderstood, and that hurt can erode trust over time.

I believe the opposite is also true — through shared language and meaningful relationships we can repair trust and boost our collective hope for the future. With teams this can also manifest as more effective work and a better work life overall.

Pattern language as a framework

How can we, as teams, build a shared language that values all of these existing experiences, perspectives, tensions and ways of collaborating? Luckily, there is a framework for this: a pattern language. Well, originally it comes from the field of architecture. But we’ve recently been playing with applying pattern language to collaboration, especially with our clients and helping them solve some of their greatest challenges at work.

Wikipedia defines a pattern language as:

“A method of describing good design practices or patterns of useful organization within a field of expertise.”

It can also be defined as

“A collection of universal patterns within a particular field of expertise that can be used to design solutions to certain problems and challenges contextually.”

Here’s a very simple example from architecture, the discipline where pattern language emerged: in designing a house, you might identify a problem of how people will get into the house. Door is one pattern with multiple variations of how that pattern could be applied — where the door would go, what material it is made out of, and so on. The pattern is the general concept for the solution, the details are specific to the implementation of the solution.

Still following? Let’s unpack it some more:

photo by Christian L

Pattern in this framework refers to a thing that happens, a natural pattern. These natural patterns are identified through observation or created as a design tool, and repeat themselves at different scales. They also stack together to create more complex, customized or nuanced solutions. Some other words we use which might be related to “pattern” in this context: solution, concept, rule, rhythm, standard, best practice, ritual, archetype, protocol, value, expectation, etc. Though none of these are quite the full definition of a pattern because a pattern is an abstraction whose purpose is to give us a way of framing and solving common problems. For example: a pattern of door allows us to develop a “rule” of buying pre-made doors or a “best practice” of purchasing doors from the same company.

Language refers to the way we label these patterns. More specifically it refers to the words we use, the collection of the patterns identified.

The term pattern language can be confusing in part because we have so many words for pattern. You’ll see that even here in this blog post. As we move forward, I’ll try my best to refer to all of these as patterns. And the word language brings to mind creating a new language, when in reality we’re typically using existing words in our own languages. It can also be confusing because the concept of a pattern language is so pervasive in our lives that we often don’t see it, though we use it every day.

The family example

I’ll use the the metaphor of a family to break down pattern language even further. Quick preface: I live in the USA. I’m speaking from my own cultural experience and understanding of a family unit.

In every family there are natural rhythms. For example: meal times, bedtimes, weekdays, weekends, holidays, seasonal activities, spiritual events, sick days, and so on. These rhythms repeat daily, weekly, monthly, annually, and generationally. Now, for the sake of our metaphor, let’s simplify this to the smallest scale, the day, and say that our imaginary family has two primary patterns that everything else revolves around: morning routine and bedtime.

First, you’ll remember that a pattern exists as a solution. With that in mind, let’s explore what these two patterns might help solve.

photo by Hannah Whitaker

Morning routine

Why is this pattern needed?
Getting a good start to the day is important for everyone. It’s a time for the family to share a meal before departing the home. It also allows a family to quickly coordinate any plans for the rest of the day/evening.

How does it work?
This pattern looks different for each person and changes slightly depending on the day of the week, time of year, and other special circumstances. It generally includes getting dressed, sharing a morning meal, packing lunches (on week days), a quick check-in about evening plans, and a warm goodbye as everyone departs.

Bedtime

Why is this pattern needed?
Similar to morning routine, closing the day mindfully is important to everyone. It’s also a time for family members to reconnect with one another and establish some sense of consistency in rhythms.

How does it work?
Each person has a different time they inevitably wind up going to sleep. Generally speaking, people start to begin bedtime routines a couple hours after dinner. It usually involves brushing teeth, changing clothes, finishing work/projects, and a relaxing activity like reading.

Simply hearing or reading bedtime and morning routine brings to mind a lot of images, feelings, and meanings. We can easily visualize our own rhythms for each of these, some of which might include your ideal set of tasks for the day, variations on your routines based on time of year and location, and how these patterns change over time and with different context. This lies at the heart of a pattern language: it’s clear to everyone, it’s easy learn, it creates solutions with obvious boundaries, and it’s adaptable.

Shared understanding, divergent experience

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel

Regardless of their individual experiences, each family member has a very clear understanding of these patterns. They can therefore have conversations around these patterns. Maybe the youngest child is now of an age to set their own bedtime so they begin a negotiation around this, “I’m twelve years old now and I think I should have the same bedtime as Max and Sam”. Or maybe the morning routine needs to change because someone got a new job, “I have to be at my new office early so I’m going to have to change my morning routine on weekdays”. The family can perceive how these changes may impact their lives because they’ve acknowledged and labeled these patterns.

This starts to get at the core of how pattern languages work. When we name something, we call it into being, giving it life and power, and in turn changing the way our minds work. A good example is how, as far as we know, the only ancient culture that used the word “blue” was the Egyptians. They had to have a name for this color because, unlike other civilizations, they produced blue dye. The rest of the world took hundreds, if not thousands of years to catch up.

“It’s about the way that humans see the world, and how until we have a way to describe something, even something so fundamental as a colour, we may not even notice that it’s there.” — Kevin Loria, business insider Australia

With me still? Great. Now before I zoom out, let’s dive a little deeper.

Stacking and nesting patterns

photo by Lisheng Chang

Remember at the beginning when I defined patterns as repeating at different scales? Within each of these two patterns are more patterns. Did you already notice them?

At the shallowest level, there are different patterns for each individual and for different days of the week; more specifically, you can think about weekend and weekday as their own patterns. They’re separate rhythms and have their own patterns within it (sleepovers, chores, worship, sports, etc.), yet they also interact with the main patterns of morning routine and bedtime. All of these patterns are simultaneously distinct and integrated.

We can also stack patterns. Let’s imagine that the family has a pattern they call rotating chores and it’s the middle child Max’s turn to cook breakfast as one of their chores. Max can combine the patterns of morning routine, dietary needs and rotating chores to come up with a breakfast that everyone can eat.

This is the point at which the metaphor can expand exponentially. Imagine this concept of pattern language applying to the archetypes of mother, father, elder, son, daughter, and so on. Or imagine how it can apply to best practices like doing the dishes, feeding the dog, adjusting the thermostat. There’s no end to the amount of patterns we can identify in the complex unit we call “family”. And this is just one example of where pattern language can be applied.

I’ll stop here and step back a bit.

The benefits of pattern languages

Built into our DNA

photo by Caroline Minor Christensen

One reason the framework of pattern language is so challenging to define is because we already know and use it instinctually, but we have no name for it. We know patterns so deeply that they seem part of our human genome, coded into the way our brains develop and understand the world. How long does it take for you to conjure an image in your mind when you read the word “breakfast”? Probably less than a second. Does it describe one meal prepared one way for a set group of people? Probably not. Is it possible for you to imagine many ways of doing “breakfast”? Probably yes. But would you likely use a pattern language in this way at your own home? Probably not. It’s not necessary!

In our every day cultures we have many concepts and patterns just like “breakfast” that describe something simultaneously very specific and infinitely malleable, like “wait in line” or “punch card” or “phone date”. But for some reason, when we enter our working life we have a tendency to create rigid protocols that feel outdated, stifling, exclusionary, and overly-bureaucratic instead of intuitive, adaptable and open. Why is this?

(Maybe we can save the answer for another post about the industrial revolution and consumer-based society.)

Applying it to the workplace

The point is that once we understand the concept of pattern language we can begin to reshape the way we think about (and approach) our work. It gives us a way to reimagine the quality of our shared understanding, letting us loosen our grip on standardization and strict adherence to protocol. It also allows us to identify and abandon patterns that no longer serve us and emphasize those that do. When we redefine protocols as patterns we’re much more able to give space for alternative experiences. Allowing for alternative experiences and solutions allows us to be kinder, more trusting, more inclusive, more intersectional, and to be honest, more effective.

A perfect example is how the the CEO of GM, Mary Barra, updated their corporate dress code from a 10-page manual to two words: “dress appropriately”.

“I realized that often, if you have a lot of overly prescriptive policies and procedures, people will live down to them. But if you let people own policies themselves — especially at the first level of people supervision — it helps develop them. It was an eye-opening experience, but I now know that these small little things changed our culture powerfully.”

Without even knowing it, she’s developed a pattern in their company’s corporate language. By working from pattern to detail, as it’s done in permaculture, she’s enabled particular details to be defined on the most local level possible. This gives agency to people to make decisions that meet the needs of their particular context. In this specific example, it also gives teams the ability to have a vibrant and meaningful conversation about what “appropriate” means to them.

On the flip side, having difficulty talking about work leads groups back to the start of all of this: building rigid protocols that don’t actually serve anyone or consistently miscommunicating about vague ideas that have little structure.

It’s just the beginning

Wrapping all of this up, I firmly believe pattern languages can help us develop the shared understandings that give us enough structure to ensure we’re speaking about the same thing and enough flexibility to account for a broad spectrum of experience. It feels like the next wave of organizational design.

As I begin to more fully develop this body of work in collaboration with my co-conspirator Steve Cooperman and my clients I’ll expand on these concepts here. You can expect to have more concrete examples of what patterns of collaboration can look like in groups. These patterns may include things like project steward, pack light and team dictionary. And likely we’ll be producing some resources for folks interested in applying pattern language in their own lives.

For now, I hope this resonates with a shift you’ve been desiring/seeing/experiencing in your world and that you’ll reach out if you have anything you’re working on that feels related.

In solidarity,

Katie