Using patterns as the basis for creativity is common in the world of design.  It seemed counter-intuitive to me until I read Designing Social Interfaces, a book that calls itself “a family of social web design principles and interaction patterns.” The authors, Erin Malone and Christian Crumlish, built a cohesive system of interface design using pattern language. It won me over.

Since then, I’ve been thinking more about patterns in the kind of work we do, and I think there are several different ways that patterns enable inventiveness.

Patterns can act like building blocks upon which, or from which, we create something entirely new. An example of this is modular or component development, such as the Merritt Micro Services launched recently by CDL’s UC3 team. These are discrete services that can stand alone or plug in together to create exactly the curation system needed for a local solution. The UC3 components are open and can also interface with components created by other developers, and so, in this very real way, they are a basis for innovation.

Image courtesy of the Allis-Chalmers (Oxnard Plant) Archives, Oxnard Public Library Photograph Collection

In a slightly altered manner, patterned processes can also enable innovation. That is, by codifying some procedures and techniques, it’s possible to analyze work flows, which can then lead (sometimes) to innovations in the way work gets done. It can also (sometimes) free up resources. This kind of work has to be undertaken by those who truly understand the domain, or the results can be counter productive.

An example of this kind of process analysis is work that the Next Generation Technical Services Task Force groups have been considering. Their collective charge has been, in effect, to look for places in the UC Libraries’ technical services where common and repeatable processes can be done once and not 10 times, so that scarce resources can be allocated to the special and innovative work that wouldn’t otherwise be possible.

In this case, there is a double dose of creativity. The solutions being proposed are, in many cases, innovative. And, if they are adopted, and succeed, then they will release resources for other creative work.

In project management, we use patterns too. When assessing risk, we are looking out at the road ahead and identifying patterns we’ve seen before, hoping to avoid the potholes. When we use proven techniques and templates, we hope to capitalize on knowledge we’ve gained through experience, freeing ourselves to focus on unusual situations that may arise.

The trick in using patterns, and this is as true in the world of design as it is in the world of project management, is to know when to apply the rule and when to depart from it. You have to know when to adapt, to look around and see that the place you’re in is a specific place that demands creativity from you and offers you the promise of new discoveries.