When have you seen someone break a well-established pattern? What were the consequences of that action?

In businessm and in life, the easiest thing is to go along with the established patterns. They’re there for a reason, they’ve been set up over decades and generations, they give us the way things are done.

To change them is to go against tradition, to take on risk, to break into the unknown.

Yet often the moments of truth, innovation, creation of breakthrough are pattern breaks. Systems change always is.


At a recent The Public Service Transformation Academy awayday, we ended up reflecting on pattern-breaking quite a lot.

Royston John challenged us to an exercise where we thought about ‘radicals’, and what we would do if we co-facilitated with them.

Some examples I loved:

> Abolitionists fighting slavery with powerful symbolism and arguments that showed the true force and implications of espoused religious and moral beliefs.

> Extinction Rebellion, using the power of fear and passion to make the argument that there’s really no alternative choice to radical climate action, with the belief that if 3.5% of people are willing to put themselves on the line, the system *must* change

> The psychological shift of the Otpor movement using the phrase ‘gotov je’ (‘it’s over / he’s over’) to hasten the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic – suddenly, people were forced to think ‘maybe he’s not unassailable – maybe he won’t be in power forever’

> The example in Vaclav Havel’s The Power of the Powerless – the impact of a greengrocer simply removing the sign from his window that read ‘workers of the world unite’ – refusing to signal compliance with the regime.

> The story – I think from Peter Block’s Flawless Consulting or something of that period – of the consultant, presenting their findings and analysis. The leader gets up from the table and goes to pour a coffee at the back of the room. The consultant says ‘oh, okay, yes, grab a coffee, I’ll wait’. The leader gestures that he *is* paying attention – ‘you carry on’. ‘No, it’s OK, I want your full attention. I’ll wait until you’re ready’.

> The quiet sexist or racist comment or ‘joke’, and the response ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that – could you say it again, please?’


Each of these creates an explicit moment of choice in an implicit flow that sweeps everyone along, for better or worse, these pattern-breaking acts or speech acts offer something. A rock to hold on to, to get out of the river, perhaps. Or perhaps just the tiniest twig end of a tree branch, that won’t hold against the current.

Part of the choice, the moment of tension, the crisis they create, is that they could have implications for the speaker.

When have you seen pattern-breaking used to good effect?


Peter Block, following Werner Erhard, says about this that ‘all transformation is linguistic – are we speaking into a different world?’ – and I think it’s clear that this use of ‘linguistic’ includes symbolism.

I might follow this up with further thoughts on embedded ‘we’ve always done things this way’ patterns, with more on ‘there are implications to every action’, and/or with dealing with pressure to act in bad faith, if you’re interested?

One thought on “When have you seen someone break a well-established pattern? What were the consequences of that action?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s