The HeadScratcher Post Archive
March 2010
Parallel Thinking
       March 2010  The Headscratcher Post © Headscratchers LLC   Edition 59
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Parallel Thinking

The premise for pursuing parallel thinking (defined below) is that not all your conclusions are correct. 

Almost all of our conclusions come to us via inductive reasoning.  For example; If the last 10 discussions with your boss ended with more work to do, you might conclude that if you have another conversation with your boss, you’ll probably get more work to do.  Note the word “probably”.  It is not certain.  Inductive reasoning yields a probabilistic conclusion, i.e. a conclusion that isn’t 100% certain.  You reach thousands of inductive conclusions every day, ranging from the mundane (what to eat and wear, which way to drive to work, what bills to pay), to work related (the words you choose in a meeting, what to recommend as the next step, evaluating ideas), etc.

Almost every one of these conclusions only has a probability of being correct.  This means there is the possibility that another conclusion is correct, or better. 

Parallel Thinking, like the words imply, is to Think about another possible conclusion at the same time you pursue your original conclusion.   Chances are your original conclusion is correct, but when working on those very important decisions, it sometimes pays to think through another tactic at the same time just in case you’re wrong.

One place this really pays off is when diagnosing a problem from a set of symptoms in areas such as software development, customer support, quality assurance, operations and repair. 

This is how it works:  Based on a series of symptoms, you use your experience and knowledge, and you come up with a conclusion about what might be wrong.  As you pursue this, you (or your co-worker), should consider these questions:  What else is possible, what else can cause this, what other conclusions are there?  In this way, if the original conclusion is incorrect, you have already thought about alternative ideas and conclusions.  Sometimes this thinking will yield a more likely conclusion and you’ll switch gears for the better.

Another place where Parallel thinking is of great benefit is when you are asked for a prediction or a forecast, i.e. what will happen next, what will our sales be, what’s the best marketing program?   Sometimes this thinking is called “creating a Plan B”, as a contingency in case your prediction is incorrect.  You don’t have to take action on Plan B, but it’s often very helpful to have thought about what that might be in Parallel with executing the original plan.

The Takeaway: Knowing that your conclusions are mostly inductive, and this process yields only a probability of being correct, it sometimes pays to just think about what other conclusions are possible.  This can save a tremendous amount of time when, if later, you discover that your original conclusion is incorrect.  In addition, many times, you’ll find that just thinking about alternative conclusions will favorably impact your approach towards the execution of the original conclusion.

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