Thinking with your non-dominant hand: ambidexterity and foresight

I wouldn’t say I have the best handwriting. It’s a bit of an unpretty scrawl, though people can mostly decipher it. I use my left hand to hold a pencil or pen, though I do everything else with my right; I can’t use left-handed scissors or can openers, and whenever it was I last played cricket or tennis, my right hand was dominant. I’m probably a natural righty who picked up the left-hand habit from copying a left-handed parent, back in those days when they first get you to clutch a crayon and make your mark.

M.C. Escher, Drawing Hands

This week, I was helping a group of people learn to use scenario planning. There are a lot of ways to define what a scenario is, but in the Oxford Scenario Planning Approach, scenarios are assessments of the future context, developed for a particular user and purpose, to contrast with the way that the future context is currently being framed. People engaged in scenario planning devise plausible futures in order to test assumptions, challenge existing framings, and enrich decision-making in the present.

Stretching your sense of the futures you may have to inhabit can feel like “thinking with your non-dominant hand”. We’re so used to trying to solve the problem in front of us, “get on with the job”, fix things, make them better, chart a course, steer the ship. The act of strategic reframing – creating plausible futures to stretch our understanding of a given context – can feel seriously counterintuitive.

Even clasping your hands or crossing your legs the opposite way round to usual can feel odd; using your non-dominant hand when playing sports, using scissors, or writing could feel even more so. So it’s not a surprise that scenario planning might feel strange when you first try it.

Yet releasing yourself from a dominant or habitual approach can bring all kinds of benefits. You may be forced to rethink processes from first principles, returning you to “beginner’s mind” and unpicking tightly woven assumptions. You may find that your engrained habits of thinking are patterns of comfort and convention, rather than the best way to address an issue. You may see things from a different angle when approaching from the left instead of the right, or vice versa.

In successful scenario planning engagements, people often feel a sudden moment of realisation – what the pioneering scenario planner Pierre Wack called an “a-ha” moment. “It does not simply leap at you,” Wack wrote in a 1985 issue of the Harvard Business Review. “It happens when your message reaches the microcosms of decision makers, obliges them to question their assumptions…and leads them to change and reorganise their inner models of reality.”

Once people have experienced this benefit of thinking from the “outside in” – starting with future contexts, then working back to an assessment of options and strategic possibilities, often in an iterative process which is enriched by multiple repetitions – they see the merits in going against the grain of habit.

The more they employ this approach, the better their “muscle memory” for scenario work. (A right-hander who tries playing the guitar left-handed just once might not get very far, but continued practice could yield competence and even virtuosity). Gradually it becomes possible to integrate “left-handed” and “right-handed” thinking into processes of assessment and decision-making, so that our perceptions, our judgment, and our capacity to act are enriched.

And in times of turbulence and uncertainty, when tomorrow will not be like yesterday or today, that could make all the difference.

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