By Maurice Ramirez

If you want to see new opportunities for your business and increase your decision-making speed and accuracy, begin by looking outside your own business-even outside your industry-at trends and patterns that you can apply to your own organization. Ask yourself, How do others do what they do? The fact is that you can learn from observing others companies’ patterns of how to change, and in turn solve problems, make decisions, and grow your business faster than ever before.

A failure to recognize an impending problematic pattern can be just as devastating to a Mom & Pop business as it is to a hospital or NASA or to a CEOs career. Enron had a pattern of corporate corruption and failure of personal responsibility. MCI had a pattern of bad investment and then later fraud to cover those bad investments. All of these things were patterns which we can look back on in retrospect, as the books are open for everybody, and from outside industries we can say, It was obvious this was happening. And yet the people inside the industry, the experts, were looking at the same patterns and could not see them. They lacked perspective from the outside, just as we, in our own industries, can fail to have the perspective on ourselves that others may have of us. rnrnSo how can you improve your pattern recognition skills to enhance your business? Consider the following:

You must be able to pull back your blinders to recognize those patterns that tell you something has changed or is about to change. Within your own company, you may have great pattern recognition and the ability to anticipate what’s going to come next, but if you can’t see outside your company’s bubble, you may be left in the same situation that IBM was in 1978. They only looked at their own company’s patterns and did not see the coming of the personal computer. Over at Apple, though, Steve Jobs identified patterns beyond the horizon, hired Bill Gates, and started a new company and a revolution.

If other industries ultimately serve a similar purpose to yours, then even if they seem radically different than yours, their operating patterns may still be applicable. For example, health care has in recent years begun adopting the safety models used in the airline industry. Like doctors and nurses, pilots and air traffic controllers are among the few in their industry who have ultimate responsibility for a large number of lives. Many more support people are responsible for making certain that the pilots are able to do their jobs safely and effectively: the mechanics, the flight attendants, and the gate agents.

When the medical industry identified that it had a problem with safety (too many unfortunate situations were overlapping and people were dying as a result), they looked outside their own industry, to those where the stakes are very high and where a single error, if not caught, could result in not one death but 500. They learned that in the airline industry, everyone-from the lowliest mechanic or carpet sweeper, all the way up to the captain-has the authority to say, Stop that plane! if they have reason to believe a safety issue has arisen. Importing this and other patterns gleaned from the airline industry will be a long process for the medical industry but one that will ultimately lead to greater safety and efficiency.

If you have been wearing blinders for awhile, you may find it difficult to trust your instincts, even when you have identified patterns within your own business and beyond. Your natural tendency will be to look for data that will back up the pattern you are seeing. If you do this, though, and the data does not support the trend, that doesn’t mean you were wrong in your initial identification of the pattern. Data simply cannot predict the future; it cannot tell you where your business is headed, only reinforce what you already know about your business past. Data can tell you that profits are down or have leveled off, but only pattern recognition can give you a new perspective on your business and help you decide what to do to reverse trends and solve problems.

Albert Einstein said that the ultimate insanity is to continue to do what you’re doing and expect a different result. Perhaps you have identified a pattern that you want to adopt, but you don’t want to make significant changes just to make changes, nor do you want to take action with only guesswork to back you up.

First, you must have the ability to recognize what’s wrong. When you look at your business’ financial picture, for example, what do you see? If it’s not what you expect, what do you do? Supplement this analysis with the extra patterns you’ve added to your repertoire in your exploration of other businesses and industries. The perspective you gain from having these extra patterns to reference will give you a twofold gain: 1) With enough patterns, you’ll be able to see that the financial picture is not right, and 2) you’ll have a sense of what changes you can implement to make the situation better by borrowing patterns from other industries and adapting them to your situation.