Have you ever coached an issue with a partnership or team, only to find the same pattern inexplicably repeating in your own life and work? Not only is parallel process an amazing phenomenon, it holds potential to consciously apply Systems Inspired Leadership and tap into the wisdom of a larger intelligence.
Parallel process is a term you’ll find in more than one context. In the world of computer science, it refers to a situation where at least two microprocessors are handling separate parts of an overall task. A complex problem is divided into component tasks which are assigned to dedicated processors, each solving their assigned part in a parallel process. Finally, software re-assembles the data to reach a final conclusion and resolve the original issue.
It is the high tech way of saying that it is easier to get the job done if you share the load!
As systems coaches, we do leverage this form of parallel processing as a best practice for task forces and other team efforts. However, there is another, messier way in which it shows up in human relationships. We enter a parallel process without realizing it.
In coaching, parallel process is an unconscious replaying of a dynamic brought in from elsewhere – from a partnership, team or group we are supporting. It is sometimes described or experienced as a form of hypnotic induction, visceral and without words.
When Faith and I did couples therapy years ago, we noticed a recurring phenomenon. We occasionally supported individual work around specific issues with partners. Faith would work with one partner and I with the other for a session or two, before returning to work together as one system.
Frequently, Faith and I found that when it was time to return to the joint sessions, we were getting into our own disagreements. Often these conflicts simply did not seem to fit the dynamic in our own partnership. Upon reflection, it became clear that the content and energy of our arguments was mirroring the issue our clients were tackling in their own relationships.
Have you ever had this experience? Perhaps you have worked with an organization where the very issue they address for clients begins to play out in their own teams and offices. In social activism, we may see activists beginning to act and behave energetically in exactly the same way as the antagonists they are protesting. Parallel process.
How might this be used in an intentional way?
During one of Einstein’s birthday celebrations, physicist John Wheeler drew his famous diagram of a huge fish looking back at its own tail. It’s a description of the evolutionary nature of the cosmos, represented by the metaphor of the fish – the present-day eye looking back on its tail eons ago.
In this simple illustration, we see the cosmos’ ability to observe itself.
Multiple schools of thought hold that the evolution of man and civilization depends on developing a self-reflective nature – an ability to observe our own thoughts and actions and learn from them. Process Work demands unfolding of all experience from the perspective of Deep Democracy, in order to understand the underlying wisdom.
In Relationship Systems Intelligence (RSI™), we re-interpret our personal experience not only as personal but also as an expression of the larger whole. In doing so, we often amplify the experience in order to discover what is emerging. We lean into the wisdom of the Third Entity, the intelligent, creative personality of the relationship itself, to glean information from the vantage point of meta view.
In looking at parallel process from a Systems Inspired Leadership perspective, we may see it as an attempt of the larger system to break down the complexity of an issue. We come together in parallel process to work separately yet together, just as the microprocessors in the computing world do. It is systems intelligence which supports the evolution of the team or organization through this parallel process. The challenge is to see if we can rise above our own perspective, and draw our self-reflective abilities into relationship to discover solutions.
As humans, we have an edge on machines. We have our own conscious and mediating awareness. If we boldly enter the process with the intention to gain more awareness – knowing that you hold the mirror for me – we can empower the relationship between us to replicate the role of the computer software. The Third Entity considers our separate experiences, and assembles the data of our individual insights in jigsaw puzzle fashion to create a larger whole.
When as a leader I begin to be irritated by a team member who is acting too independently, I must have the courage to recognize that I am working on this same tendency in myself. Recognizing this parallel process invites me into vulnerability – moving me to share my discoveries about this challenge and to become curious about the wisdom sitting across from me. In this parallel process, we grow ourselves, our teams, and partner in the systematic evolution of humanity.
Think about the client who irritates you or the team member who challenges you. What is at the root of the irritation and challenge that points to a parallel process? Imagine for a moment that you have met because it is the other who holds the key to unlocking a unique solution to the larger complex issue on the planet.
As we learn to recognize and use parallel processes to their full potential, the varying perspectives and experiences of every team member merge together to develop powerful, systems inspired solutions.
Updated from August 2016 article.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Marita Fridjhon is a thought leader and featured speaker on systems thinking and team coaching. As CEO and co-founder of CRR Global USA, she partnered with Faith Fuller to create the groundbreaking Organization and Relationship Systems Coaching (ORSC™) series. A trained therapist, mediator and facilitator, Marita serves as mentor to an ever-growing community of practitioners in the field of Relationship Systems. She is the co-author of Creating Intelligent Teams and Systems Inspired Leadership.