Parallel Thinking

Parallel Thinking

Parallel Thinking

One of the leading causes of a breakdown in a meeting or planning session is confusion. And confusion often arises because we try to tackle too much all at once. It’s a natural behavior, and one we’ve been socialized to us; to argue one side; and try to convince the others in the group of the merits of your side.

But that model is very limiting. After all, in nearly every group, there are differences in personalities. Some people may rely on emotion or gut-felling, others on logic; some are cautious and critical, while others are positive thinkers; some are creative, and others are organized. None of these are better or worse than any of the others.

Except if we have a tendency towards one of those personalities, we may overemphasize it and de-emphasize another, while others in the group do the same. And if we all emphasize our individual priorities to the neglect of the others, that’s where the confusion begins.

But if we can organize the conversation to take into account all of those personality traits, our thinking can become clearer and more robust ideas and plans can be developed.

This organization tool is called parallel thinking. Parallel thinking focuses our thinking – so we go through one category of thinking at a time and over the course of a meeting through several of the categories so we get a full picture of how to proceed. The goal is to all think in the same direction at the same time and allot time to discuss each category fully.

What you’ll need:

  • Paper and pen to take notes
  • This script

The process:

Start by posing the idea or stating the central question/topic of discussion. This could be in the form of a “straw man” or a proposal or a project idea, anything that you need to discuss and require deeper consideration and thinking. A straw man could be: a large conference, a big policy solution, or a new way to streamline communication.

Then, begin with one of the following categories:

  • Data
  • Caution
  • Emotion
  • Positive
  • Creative

Once you select which category, let the group know. Sometimes it’s easiest to start with Data. Here is a script you can use to explain each category.

  • Data: That is, facts and figures. What data do we already have? What data are needed to make a better decision? What facts do we already know and what facts are needed? Think about the topic objectively and do not mix emotions with your thinking. Your job is to focus only on information and facts.
  • Caution: That is, what could go wrong? This is an opportunity for you to be the Devil’s advocate or to be critical of the risks and flaws. How could we fail? How could this go wrong? Focus on the negative aspects of the topic, such as why a suggestion does not work or why it is a bad idea. Focus on adopting a pessimistic and critical attitude of the topic.
  • Emotion: That is, our emotional response or gut feeling. Emotions are neither positive, nor negative, they just are feelings. What is your emotional response to this? Focus on your gut reaction and initial impressions. Your job is to say what comes to your mind and to avoid overanalyzing the topic.
  • Positive: What are the benefits/opportunities? What are the strengths/positive points? What is working well? How will it help?
  • Creative: That is, the possibilities. We’re looking for new ideas, options, and alternatives. How can we improve on this idea? Come up with creative solutions and think outside the box.

Move through each category at the group’s own pace. You do not need to go through each category for every topic, issue, or idea. However, resist the temptation to only go through one category. The beauty and utility of this tool is that you get a broad view of the idea in one sitting, as opposed to returning over and over to the same conversation spending more time than you need to litigate details you thought you had already discussed (sound familiar?).

Parallel thinking encourages everyone to think about the straw man in the same way, however, it does not prevent disagreement so don’t shy away from that. What this tool does is counter facts with facts, creativity with creativity, caution with caution, emotions with emotions, etc…instead of facts vs. emotions or creativity vs. caution in the conversation.

After going through this tool, be self-reflective. What category came the easiest to you? What was the hardest for you? Can you build on your strengths and on your challenges? This tool will provide more background on your personality characteristics, more background on the different personalities within your group.

This tool is based off the work of Edward de Bono, author of The Six Thinking Hats.

  • The Basics2