Cracking the Code: Improve Performance through Pattern Recognition

The pattern is everything. In the movie The Imitation Game, a young woman makes a joke about a pattern in the code she intercepts from a particular German radio operator. She thinks nothing of it, but that pattern, and the ability to see it for its significance, allows the team at Bletchley Park to finally crack Enigma, immediately changing the tide of World War II. The movie version is very dramatic, but in real life it happened essentially the same way: once the codebreakers were able to recognize a small but critical pattern in the enciphered messages, they could set about breaking the code.


While the dynamic isn’t nearly as dangerous, it’s possible to draw a few parallels between the German U-boat radio operators and the British team at Bletchley Park and today’s leaders and their teams. In both relationships, one half of the pair is sending a message and the other has an opportunity to capture it – but then has to determine its meaning. Teams in every organization send signals about what they are doing and how they are doing it all the time, and leaders are left to suss out the signal from the noise. This could mean that very valuable information is left undetected.

It’s time to ask yourself: Are you capturing all the information coming in from your high performers every day? Are you analyzing it? Are you finding the patterns that help you crack the code?

For so many organizations, performance improvement has become something of a stalemate. We wag our finger at underperformers and then point at the high performers, saying, “Why can’t you be more like them?” We showcase our greatest performers at annual conferences or in company-wide webinars and ask them to tell us all what makes them so great. After all, since their work is so exceptional, they must have some tricks of the trade to share, right? Yet in the end, very little comes of this. Why? Because there are two fundamental problems with this approach:

Issue #1: There’s no proof that practice is the best

We are asking the people doing the job to tell us what makes them good at their job. We think we are asking a simple question, but essentially we are asking them to do a mental inventory of everything they do in their role each day and analyze those tasks to determine which are the most uniquely effective in driving their performance. We expect them to know which of their actions are unique so they can tell us all what is setting them apart from the rest. Anyone else see the insanity in this method? Studies have proven that people are unable to accurately self-report on everything from phone usage to exercise. Your employees overlook parts of their work and inflate other aspects all the time. Sometimes they think what they’re doing is completely the norm, but it’s not – it’s the reason why they’re outperforming their peers. In reality, they’re completely oblivious.

High performers can rarely pinpoint and articulate what makes them the best. Don’t ask them to! A stronger, more valuable approach is to collect observations and interviews with a set of high performers AND a set of mid performers and look for where the two diverge. If all of your high performers are doing something that your mid performers aren’t, you’ve now isolated the critical element that makes up the “best.”

Issue #2: That best practice isn’t a real practice

In typical best practice sharing, leaders or managers ask one high performer to talk about what’s working in his or her part of the business. But this simply conflates personality with practices. We see the guy with the boisterous personality at the front of the room talking about how he calls everyone “sport” and “champ” and invites a different set of team members each month to the club to play a round and we start to paint the role in his image. We start to believe you can only bring out the best in your team if you create the same jovial relationships and spend some time together on the putting green. How on earth does the mild-mannered non-golfer in the back replicate this “best practice”? She can’t. And she’s at a loss as to what to do next. Meanwhile, HR is out recruiting … other loud, outspoken men? You can see the slippery slope here. Because we asked one person what works for him, we had no choice but to accept personality as practice. We can’t see the practice signal through the personality noise.

Only when you start to look across the high performers for the patterns can you truly find the scalable practices that drive performance – the practices that can be executed regardless of personal attributes.

If you had looked across multiple high performers, you might have seen that while this guy plays golf with team members, another leader does a weekly lunch with a rotating group of team members, and yet another invites team members to join a business book club. The underlying practice is: Get to know your team members in small groups in an informal setting. Our terrible golfer can definitely figure out a way to do that!

Pattern recognition is critical to breaking through to the scalable practices of high performers. Trust me, it’s not easy; it takes a lot of effort. But isn’t improving performance without adding any people or infrastructure worth a little effort? Yes! Just try listening closely among the dots and dashes – there’s pure gold waiting to be discovered.

One example of how real companies are leveraging All Stars is PulteGroup, an organization that has been providing the American dream of homeownership to families for more than 60 years. With the goal of enhancing building quality satisfaction scores across all divisions in order to further solidify its position as an industry leader, PulteGroup created a All Stars program. Want to know just how successful the initiative was? Read the full case study.