Decision-making & parallel thinking

Can parallel thinking bring value to the crisis management decision-making process? It’s a question I asked myself after reading Tim Harford’s article published by the FT.

“If at first you don’t succeed, goes the old saying, try, try again. Good advice, up to a point. But let me offer a modification: even when you do succeed, try, try again. Tempting as it is to declare victory and move on, in many endeavors there is much to be said for rethinking an apparently satisfactory formula”

Tim Harford, “Even when you do succeed, sometimes it pays to try again. Rethinking a satisfactory formula can unlock new ideas“, FT Weekend Edition

Parallel vs series

The idea is simple: “asking for answers in parallel rather than answers in series. While the approach is unconventional in job interviews, it is common practice among designers”, writes Harford.

“With parallel thinking (a term coined by Edward de Bono) all parties are thinking in parallel, in the same direction. The direction itself can be changed in order to give a full scan of the situation. But at every moment each thinker is thinking in parallel with all the other thinkers”.

Tim Harford &

Could this approach bring benefits to the crisis management decision-making process? It is an interesting question to consider.

Thinking about systemic crises and complexity

As we increasingly face the challenges posed by systemic crises, or “mega crises” as some call them, we have come to understand that complexity cannot be addressed by thinking in linear terms. Consequentially, it could be argued, that questions in series – an approach that works well in emergency situations – may not provide the breadth of creative solutions required to effectively manage systemic crises.

Moreover, the intrinsic complexity of systemic crises has taught us that they cannot be effectively managed by a single crisis management team. In the 21st Century, we must rethink crisis management organizations designed in an era gone by and reflect in terms of “teams” rather than “team” and of diffused leadership rather than relying on a central leading figure. The need to establish “rapid reflection cells” (RRCs) capable of taking a step back from events, to “think” rather than “act”, has also been widely advocated over the past decade by leading crisis management thinker Patrick Lagadec (@plagadec). An approach adopted for example by the Danish Civil Protection Agency through its “Pandora Cell”.   


One of the central problems in addressing systemic crises in the 21st Century has also been a “lack of imagination” as clearly identified in the 9/11 Report and as we recently experienced with the Covid19 pandemic. 

Hence, what we seem to be increasingly facing is both an organizational problem and one of creativity or “imagination”.

In this new context is there any value in borrowing ideas from designers to integrate the crisis management decision-making process with the concept of “parallel” answers? What benefits could this bring? How would it work?

Building on Tim Harford’s article we could imagine a few scenarios. 

How would it work?

In describing the designers’ approach Harford writes “They will often produce several distinct attempts to meet a given brief, rather than immediately focusing on what seems to be the best idea. In doing so, the designers force themselves to explore the full range of possibilities, to avoid the risk of committing too early to a concept that seems attractive, but which may eventually be a dead end.” 

Could crisis management teams, or RRCs, work for example in parallel on the same problem to identify distinct solutions?

Another approach could call for the Crisis Management Team or RRC to develop a response to the scenario. Then force it to forfeit the central assumption, basically “the idea at the heart of the plan”(1) and send them “back to the drawing board”, and then again. “Sooner or later”, writes Harford, “the ideas start pouring out”. 

The problem in crisis management of course is that we do not have the luxury of time. But we also know that individual or group biases play a critical role in making the wrong decisions. So taking more time to reflect during the crisis management decision-making process and doing so using parallel thinking may be an idea worth exploring.

1.    Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, Designing Your Life, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2016.

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