Associating, Pattern Matching, and Sensemaking

On Wed-Feb-22 at Noon PST the Book Club For Business Impact covered lessons learned applying a number of techniques for associating from chapter 2 of the “Innovator’s DNA” by Jeff Dyer, Hal Gregersen, and Clayton Christensen.

Techniques For Associating

  • Forcing Odd Combinations:  juxtaposing incongruities
    • Random Combinations – Bigrams, Trigrams, and Madlibs
    • Think Like a Different Person or Firm
    • Compare Two Activities (e.g “like X for Y”)
  • Zoom In / Zoom Out: balancing a view of the big picture with a focus on key details
  • Lego Thinking: remixing current ideas and capabilities
    • Curiosity Box: collect ideas & objects that are interesting or potentially useful
    • SCAMPER: Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Magnify/Minimize, Put To Another Use, Eliminate, Reverse/Re-Arrange
  • If time permits we may cover additional techniques not mentioned in book:

On-Line Event: Lessons Learned Applying Tips for Associating From “The Innovator’s DNA”
When: Wed-Feb-22 at Noon PST
Series: 5 Key Discovery Skills from

The skill of associating is not succinctly defined in one place in the book but I would offer this definition: associating is connecting disparate facts, observations, and stories to enable compelling combinations that form new business ideas. In a footnote to Chapter 2 on associating the authors note

We prefer the term associational thinking to pattern recognition because the latter term seems to suggest that there is an identifiable pattern innovative entrepreneurs recognize. As innovators described how they discovered or recognized ideas for innovative new ventures, it seemed to us that while they connected disparate ideas together, they often did not recognize a pattern, or even recognize that it would be a viable business opportunity. They often discovered things that fit together through trial and error and adaption.

Sometimes it even takes a while before you “know it when you see it.” I think in large part associational thinking involves sensemaking. Here are two relevant citations. The first is from “Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking” by Weick, Sutcliffe, and Obstfeld in Organization Science Vol. 16, No. 4, July–August 2005, pp. 409–421

Sensemaking involves turning circumstances into a situation that is comprehended explicitly in words and that serves as a springboard into action.
To deal with ambiguity, interdependent people search for meaning, settle for plausibility, and move on. These are moments of sensemaking…

Most startups settle for plausibility and plow forward because they will be out of time and budget by the time they achieve certainty.

The second and much longer citation is from “Making Sense of Sensemaking 2: A Macrocognitive Model” by Gary Klein, Brian Moon, and Robert R. Hoffman in IEEE Intelligent Systems Vol. 21, No. 5 September/October 2006

When people try to make sense of events, they begin with some perspective, viewpoint, or framework–however minimal. For now, let’s use a metaphor and call this a frame. We can express frames in various meaningful forms, including stories, maps, organizational diagrams, or scripts, and can use them in subsequent and parallel processes. Even though frames define what count as data, they themselves actually shape the data (for example, a house fire will be perceived differently by the homeowner, the firefighters, and the arson investigators). Furthermore, frames change as we acquire data. In other words, this is a two way street: Frames shape and define the relevant data, and data mandate that frames change in nontrivial ways.


Sensemaking can involve elaborating the frame by adding details, and questioning the frame and doubting the explanations it provides.  A frame functions as a hypothesis about the connections among data.  One reaction to doubt is to explain away troublesome data and preserve the frame.


Questioning the frame leads us to reconsider—to reject the initial frame and seek to replace it with a better one. We might compare alternative frames to determine which seems most accurate. Or we might simply be mystified by the events.

Anyone who has stumbled through a sequence of pivots into a pirouette can appreciate that last observation.

Related Blog Posts

The Best Book of 2011 – The Innovator’s DNA

Innovator’s DNA Associating Skill Video

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