Perceiving Patterns of Change

Like the spread of a celebrity “selfie” photo on Twitter or the ups and downs of a person challenged to maintain personal fitness, trends are part of daily life and our changing world.  We hear about them, see them in newspapers and feel them personally.

Examples of trending questions:

“Is this a one time thing, or have we seen it surface before?”

“Does that data show a trend or just a snapshot caused by extenuating circumstances?”

“After we launch this project, will we experience an implementation dip?”

”Did you notice how many “likes” I received on my Facebook post in such a short time?”

An important habit of a systems thinker is observing how elements within systems change over time, generating patterns and trends.  The ability to see and make visible those trends helps people communicate viewpoints about how and why things change.

Trends can also be perceived in different ways, depending on one’s perspective. For example, a parent may view her teenage daughter’s repeated efforts to become more independent as rebellious behavior.  If not shared and discussed, these two different views of the same behavior can cause conflict and confusion.  The act of making choices without parent advice or approval can be perceived as rising rebellion, yet from a teenager’s point of view, the same pattern shows rising independence and movement toward adulthood.


Behavior-over-time graphs (BOTGs) are simple tools that illustrate patterns and trends.  Basically, a BOTG can show, through a quick drawing of a graph, how something changes over time.  Time is always on the “x” or horizontal axis and the element that is changing is on the “y” or vertical axis. Click here to learn more about this tool.

A third grade girl is learning how to manage her diabetes by tracking changes in her blood sugar over time.

 BOTGs can show changes using hard, numerical data or using general, perceptual impressions.  In either case, one might ask when viewing a change over time, “Is the trend growing or declining, leveling off or oscillating?”  The shape of the change then becomes the story of the change.  When individuals create BOTGs they not only visually describe the nature of the change but they also “outline” the rationale for the shape of the pattern or trend over time.  For example, a story of a graph might go like this:  “In the beginning, the line goes up because…and then levels off because… and eventually goes back down because…”


An Early Learning Example

One of the most powerful examples of how BOTGs help people see and understand patterns and trends comes from a preschool class of 4 year olds.  The class was reading a series of picture book stories and making simple graphs of changes over time in elements such as level of happiness or fear of main characters., or changes in the number of animals or amount of plants in a garden. After the teacher read each  story aloud, the class together would draw a BOTG of a key change and closed with a discussion about the graph.  The teacher would then hang the graph on a classroom wall. 

crown-graphAfter a few weeks following this routine, a child looked at the series of graphs that had been drawn from different books and noticed that some of the trend lines were similar.  She noticed several up-and-down lines showing that the level of change was sometimes going up and sometimes going down from several different stories.  She proudly pointed out this similarity and named those stories that had up-and-down graphs “crown stories.”  The graphs looked like a queen’s crown and that clever label helped categorize a pattern. 

VV_BOTGThat young girl’s revelation inspired the thinking of her classmates as they started naming other similarly looking graphs as “slides,” “stairs,” “tables” and “valleys.”  Now when reading stories, the 4 year olds actively listen for patterns and name them accordingly. Because the children have internalized the understanding that change can have shape and pattern, they use their own labels to identify the generic nature of patterns and trends they see and experience.  Are we trending toward a generation of systems thinkers?  Let’s hope so!



Trending Reflections

Reflection in lakeReflect on these questions as you consider important trends that impact you, your work and life.

What trends are important for you to pay attention to as you strive to achieve goals or desired outcomes?

What types of trends do you tend to notice?

How might these tendencies create blind spots that limit your ability to recognize other important patterns and trends?

 How can you actively listen to what’s happening in the stories you’re experiencing?

 How does your perspective influence the ways you see change?  How can you become open to other perspectives that may help you see patterns in different ways? 

 If you work with young people, what trends are important for them to be able to identify and understand? How might you facilitate that understanding?


The Success in “Successive Approximation”

“My path to success was my ability to make mistakes and make adjustments from what I learned.  The reason I was successful in business is that I learned to make mistakes faster than others.”
James Waters, Founder of The Waters Foundation

Artist assess his artwork to decide what changes to make.

Over the years, Jim Waters has offered us many words of advice based on his business and science experience and expertise.  
His favorite habit of a systems thinker focuses on Successive Approximation, or the ability to check results and change actions when needed.  There is no coincidence that the word “success” is embedded in this systems thinking habit.

Like any successful artist, writer, craftsman, actor, scientist or teacher, those who have high expectations monitor progress, make adjustments when needed, and most likely achieve impressive results. In essence a life-long learner holds the mindset of learning more from mishaps than from easily gained achievements. Having the courage to try new approaches when striving to reach a long-term goal, risking the chance that the short-term results turn out poorly, is a trait of a successful systems thinker.    

Suffice it to say that the more one learns, the more one realizes how much is truly unknown or misunderstood.  The quest for understanding then becomes an ongoing process of successive approximation. This approach requires patience, which is a challenge in times when pressures mount to produce immediate, noticeable, desired results.  Long-term, significant improvements take time and will not generally be accomplished as a result of quick fixes or snap decisions.

A Successive Approximation Tool: Goal and Gap Balancing Loop 

This causal loop shows that difference between desired and current performance as a gap.  Improvement strategies help improve current performance therefore shrinking the gap.


By Nicole Forrester.Panyd at en.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

This causal loop shows the difference between desired and current performance resulting in a gap.  When the gap grows, the need for improvement strategies increases, therefore changing the current performance and decreasing the gap.  Causal loops help us see the change over time and causal relationships in a circular manner.  Gaps grow and shrink constantly over time depending on a wide range of conditions.  Successive approximation helps systems continually adapt to growing or shrinking gaps in order to maintain progress.  Successive approximation also reminds us to always have a desired performance level or goal that is not yet achieved.

High jumpers are seldom satisfied with their first successful jump.  They acknowledge their success and then raise the bar to establish a new challenge or new goal.  They are allowed two misses, which become opportunities to assess what went wrong and what needs to change in order to clear new heights.  Without new heights as goals, along with the misses that take place to improve skill in jumping over those new heights, strategy would stagnate and records would never be broken.


When current performance improvements result in a shrinking, non-existent gap, the red arrow indicates the need to increase the level of desired performance. When raising the bar to increase the goal, a newly established gap defines ongoing improvement and the success in successive approximation.

Successive Approximation Reflections

Reflection in lakeTo what degree do you schedule time to pause, reflect, and assess the effects of a current plan and take necessary action?

Knowing that the recognition of gaps initiates learning, how do you help people learn by embracing and appreciating gaps in your work, your family and yourself?

What are the indicators of progress that you notice on a day-to-day basis?     Or in the long-term? How do these indicators guide your decisions and help you take action?