Meetings are often unproductive with no final decision made at the end of the meeting.  Parallel thinking allows you to consider all the important aspects of any decision, without going down a rabbit hole.
Meetings are often unproductive with no final decision made at the end of the meeting. Parallel thinking allows you to consider all the important aspects of any decision, without going down a rabbit hole.

How to improve decision making with parallel thinking

We’ve all experienced it. Those meetings that drag on forever and eventually you walk out more confused than before.  Or the colleague who loves his own voice so much that he doesn’t give anyone else a chance to speak.

From my experience meetings are the biggest source of waste in many organizations. They are, in fact, one of the biggest barriers to productivity in many workplaces.  Meetings are, however, essential for effective communication and decision making — the two primary reasons for any organization to exist in the first place.   When meetings are done right they have the ability to engage, motivate and improve collaboration like nothing else.

Meetings can be the medicine or the poison to improve, or destroy, productivity and collaboration in the workplace.

When you google “effective meetings” there are many articles on how to make meetings more productive. Lean Coffee, for example, is an agile approach specifically designed to optimize meetings. This lean approach to meetings assumes that the people who show up for a meeting are the right people. It draws up an agenda on the spot, without any preparation needed asking participants what they want to talk about. No agenda is forced upon anyone, resulting in discussion only relevant to the attendees. It also provides a structure to ensure movement – a necessary, but often overlooked – aspect of effective meetings.

It does, however, not guarantee removing the biggest obstacle to effective meetings, namely ego.

The biggest obstacle to effective meetings

Ego shows up when people have a personal agenda rather than collaborating for what’s best for the organization. An ego-driven meeting is usually lead or overpowered by one person.  Usually, someone who is primarily there to convince the rest of their plan or idea, not to decide on the best plan collaboratively.

It’s the elephant in the room that no-one can talk about because it’s not something tangible that can be discussed.  Often, the domineering party is the authority figure, making it hard to challenge or question. Ego-driven discussion is a hidden intention and at best it’s a guess to discern whether your intuition is in fact right or clouded by your personal biases.

And if you can’t admit to the elephant in the room, you’re not able to do anything about it. Or can you?

Thinking efficiently with the 6 Thinking Hats

Edward de Bono, with a degree in medicine, psychology and physiology, was interested in how we think. He has written a number of books on thinking, with one dedicated to the 6 Thinking Hats.  He proposed that thinking is a skill that can be learned, not something you were born with.    Also he coined the term lateral thinking, more commonly known as creative thinking. He created a set of tools to intentionally generate innovate and new ideas. Another form of thinking he coined is called parallel thinking*, more generally known as critical thinking.

Parallel thinking

Parallel thinking is a simple, yet effective tool to align the thinking in the room.  It can be compared to the lean manufacturing concept of one-piece-flow for the mind.  It provides an alternative to argument as a means of reaching consensus within a group.

Often, everyone is at a different place in their thinking process and has a different perspective.  The majority of the time and energy is spent on trying to get everyone on the same page rather than decision making.

Often an entire hour is spent going around in circles with no agreement reached within the group.  Parallel thinking attempts to create some order in this chaotic thinking process, much like a defined value stream simplifies and orders the process of developing products and services to make it more productive.

6 Thinking Hats

Image of the 6 thinking hats thinking areas

When everyone focuses on the same area at the same time, progress is made much faster with little room for the ego to dominate the meeting.  The 6 Thinking Hats is a practical application of the concept of parallel thinking, where each different color hat represents a different thinking direction.

Using the six thinking hats** method of thinking, the facilitator may, for example, request everyone to dedicate a set time to only focus on white-hat thinking.  During this time, everyone in the room focuses only on the facts and information surrounding the topic.  Questions like “What do we know about this topic?” or “What information do we need and how can we get it?” is asked.  The focus is solely focused on information, without any benefits, risks, emotions or options to distract the thinking.

When someone attempts to distract the conversation by mentioning anything that is not factual and directly contributing to the information-focus, like expressing emotions or risks which might steer the conversation in a different direction, the facilitator explains that there will be time to focus on these aspects later and gently guides them back to focus on the topic of discussion.

Once the information has been unpacked adequately, the entire group is requested to focus on the next thinking style, for example exploring alternatives (green hat thinking), or looking at risks (black hat thinking).

Each metaphorical hat is worn in sequence, or as the need arises, to align the focus of thinking. Read more about the Six Thinking Hats.

Focused meetings are effective meetings

The key to more productive and focused meetings is the underlying concept of parallel thinking used in the 6 Thinking Hats.  Although the 6 Thinking Hats is a general framework that can be used in most meetings, the principle of parallel thinking can be applied anywhere, depending on the need.

For example, parallel thinking can be used when doing a PESTEL analysis by breaking down each of the distinct focus areas into a specific focus area similar to the 6 colored hats.  Everyone in the meeting only focuses on the political drivers, then move their attention to the economic factors, then the social factors etc.

By focusing the discussion on desired outcomes – one at a time – there is little room for ego. When the ego does pop up, people are able to overrule these ego-driven discussions with an objective and non-threatening tool. And when everyone is able to contribute equally, decisions are more effective as there is automatic buy-in.  Meetings are shorter, and the productive actions after the meetings improve. To focus on thinking, even more, try to use tangible artefacts such as cards or a cube.

* Parallel Thinking is a registered trademark of the De Bono Group.

** 6 Thinking Hats is a registered trademark of the De Bono Group.

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