Parallel Process: The Expression of an Intelligent Universe

By Marita Fridjhon, CEO of CRR Global

A discussion on ORSC Global between our coaches stirred my excitement about this amazing phenomenon. I believe the ability to consciously work with Parallel Process is the ability to directly tap into a collective creativity and the wisdom of a larger intelligence. I also think there are creative leadership applications for this. Before I get ahead of myself, lets take some things apart and first look at the definition of parallel process.

Wikipedia states the following: “Parallel processing is the ability to carry out multiple operations or tasks simultaneously. The term is used in the contexts of both human cognition, particularly in the ability of the brain to simultaneously process incoming stimuli, and in parallel computing by machines.” In my mind, this is not to be confused with mere multi-tasking. An example from the computing industry might provide better understanding.

Here it refers to an initiative where at least two micro processors handle separate parts of an overall task. When working with a complex problem, computer scientists divide the complex problem into component tasks. Each component task is then assigned to a dedicated processor. Each processor then solves its assigned part of the overall complex problem; parallel process. Finally, software then re-assembles the data to reach the final conclusion and resolution of the original complex problem. It is the high tech way of saying that it is easier to get the job done if you share the load!

While we indeed leverage parallel processing in best practices for task forces and other team efforts, there is another, messier way in which it shows up in human relationships that I believe to be a good mine for systemic transformation. It happens when we are in a parallel process without realizing it!

Years ago when Faith and I still did couples therapy we would from time to time choose to do individual work around specific issues with partners. Faith would work with one partner and I with the other for a session or two and then return to conjoint work. That’s when we noticed a recurring phenomenon: by the time we got back to the joint sessions, Faith and I would invariably get into disagreements before the couple session – the content of which simply did not feel congruent with our own partnership.

Upon reflection, it was clear that sometimes in content, and almost always energetically, our disagreements mirrored what our patients were working on in their relationship. That phenomenon is referred to as parallel process: the unconscious replaying, in the helping relationship, of a dynamic that originated from another relationship – in this case the clients. It is often described or experienced as a form of hypnotic induction: visceral and without words

You must have had the experience in client work or in your life, where you worked with or in a company and the very problem they were addressing for their customers, plays out in their own teams and offices? Think of social activists in situations where, if it was possible to press the mute button, we will see that activists 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 by both sides?

Physicist John Wheeler drew his famous fish diagram on a napkin at a celebration of one of Einstein’s birthdays. In this drawing of a huge fish on its back looking at is tail, he describes the evolutionary nature of the cosmos as represented by his fish metaphor; the present day eye looking back on its tail eons ago. He saw that as the cosmos’s ability to observe itself.

Multiple schools of thought inside and outside of clearly defined scientific models, hold that the evolution of man and civilization depends on its self-reflective nature; our ability to observe ourselves and learn from it. Process Work demands the unfolding of all experience with Deep Democracy in order to understand the underlying wisdom. In Relationship Systems Intelligence (RSI) we re-interpret our personal experiences 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 also lean into the wisdom of an intelligent, creative system called the 3rd Entity or the relationship itself, for information from the vantage point of meta view.

And now back to that leadership opportunity I mentioned before… If we now put it all together and look at parallel process from the Systems Inspired Leadership perspective, we may see it as an attempt of the larger system to break down the complexity of an issue, bringing us together in parallel process to work separately on the same issue. Just like those micro processors. And yes, in this proposition we DO hold that there is a systems intelligence supporting the evolution of the team or organization through this thing called parallel process. From the frame of “me as leader” it in fact is amplifying the challenge by bringing us together to see it outside of ourselves and in other, thereby using our self reflective nature in relationship to discover solutions.

And here is where we have the edge on machines; we have conscious and mediating awareness. If we boldly enter the process with the intention to gain more awareness and learning and knowing that you are the mirror for me, we may find that the relationship between us acts like the software above. It uses the experiences from our separate solutions (or learning from failures) to, almost in jig-saw fashion, re-assemble the data of our own insight and combining it with that of other.

What it requires is that when I notice that I, as leader, get irritated by my team member who acts too independently, I need to be courageous enough to recognize our parallel process… since acting too independently is something I am working on in myself! I just have to look at the MBTI profile above my desk a friend sent me. The prayer for INTP types is: “Lord help me to be less independent, but please let me do it my way!” No wonder I have difficulty with his independence. It is my stuff too! Recognizing this may invite me into vulnerability rather than authority. It will move me to not only share my discoveries about the challenge but be curious about the wisdom sitting across from me. When that happens, we not only grow us and our teams, we also partner in the systemic evolution for humanity.

Think about the client that irritates you. Think about the team member that challenges you. What is at the root of the irritation and challenge that points to a parallel process in your life? Imagine for a moment that you have been brought across from one another because you need each other to be uniquely able to contribute your solutions to the larger complex problem of this on the planet. When you can access that place, consider how you might use it consciously as a coach or as a leader.

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