Synergy – Redefined and Demystified

November 21, 2011 at 11:05 am | Posted in Blogroll, Organizational Excellence, Out of my mind, Practice Excellence, Scrum and agile, Systems Thinking | Leave a comment

For business organizations, Synergy is an important concept as there is greater emphasis on human interactions and need for better & quicker decision-making on the frontline. To provide this agility, the teams need to organize and manage themselves rather than always waiting for control and direction from above. Synergy has a tremendous untapped potential to enrich human interactions. But whenever we talk of synergy, the most common definition I keep hearing is “The whole is more than its parts” or as an example “Two and two equals five or more”. Though it all sounds nice & magical, there are limited ways to put it in practice.

I feel that if we can understand synergy in logical terms, it would provide us many more opportunities which we don’t look at because of the way synergy is defined. We need to get out of the mystery and evolve rational ways of dealing with it. First step is look at possibility of redefining what synergy really is and where it comes from. After searching on Google for better definitions and giving it a lot of thought, here is a possibility I have come up with; please see if it makes sense.

(Sy)stem + E(nergy) = Synergy

Next, where does it come from or what is its source? Here again, though lot has been written about synergy along with many examples, I did not find any reference which clearly explained the mathematical inequality “2 + 2 = (>4)” or what is the source of this extra energy.

Again after much thought, a possibility suddenly struck me. What if we approach it from a diametrically opposite direction?

Any system by itself has abundant energy. However for the systems that participate in or interact with it, the energy available for their interaction gets limited by the restrictions they place themselves or others place on it. These restrictions could be for a variety of reasons and may be placed either intentionally or unintentionally.

This line of thought can help us to investigate the common types of restrictions we frequently encounter in the context of an organization where employees & teams participate in it while the customers & other external agencies interact with it.

Dimensions of awareness – An organization works on many dimensions but each individual or groups involved may not be even aware of all such dimensions. As they try to selectively expose themselves, it opens up possibilities of collaboration in existing as well as new areas.

Limited span of attention – Everybody is so busy that there is hardly any time to expand the span of attention even on the dimensions they are aware of. Taking time out even for a glimpse at other related areas helps a lot. Assumptions and beliefs – We are so blinded by our assumptions and emotionally attached to our beliefs that it restricts our interactions. Intentionally suspending them and see beyond really helps.

Being on the defensive – Everybody has a right to protect himself against threats to very existence. The problem arises when we get obsessed with self-preservation and are unduly on the defensive. The problem is accentuated when it is expected to give up self-interest in the cause of larger good. This cycle can be reversed by accepting the right to protect oneself which makes the person more open and confident.

Excessive homogeneity – Everybody has a unique combination of strengths & talents. It needs an opportunity to make full use of them. The problem arises when in the name of standardization these natural impulses are curbed or in some cases put down with a heavy hand. The cycle can be reversed by accepting this reality and providing right environment to nurture the talents and strengths.

Lack of freedom – Everybody needs adequate freedom to respond quickly and appropriately to myriad challenges he faces. The problem arises when in the name of keeping things predictable and under control, too many or unnecessary rules are enforced. The cycle can be reversed by accepting the need and minimizing the rules while helping to evolve appropriate strategies to deal with variety of situations quickly & correctly. This in turn would build respect for a few essential rules which still remain.

Resource bottlenecks – Resource bottlenecks is natural phenomenon and there are ways to deal with it. The problem is when everybody rushes to grab the scarce resource which creates artificial shortages which is a far more serious restriction. Impatience – Many of us are so impatient to take a decision and to act on it. If there are differences take a vote and move on. But for complex problems this speed is illusive because we land up in another problem. The solution is to really listen to diverse points of view with an open mind and keep improving the original solution till all concerned agree that collectively we have come to a much better solution.

Motivation by competition – There are two ways to motivate. One way is to choose & reward the best or number one, where those not found to be the best may lose heart. Other approach is to recognize and appreciate for their contributions and give their achievements higher visibility.

Inherent system limitations – Last but not the least, even the organizations are systems which participate or interact with larger ecosystems. Thus they are also subject to all the above restrictions which in turn become restrictions for internal and external individuals & groups dealing with it.

There is also mention in the literature of “Negative synergy”. It doesn’t make sense how synergy can ever be negative. It probably follows from the choice of a wrong benchmark. Currently the benchmark is kept at the energy available to us individually. When joining hands with others gives better results it is called (positive) synergy and we feel happy. Whereas when such collaboration leads to even less output than what we could have individually achieved it is called negative synergy and we feel bad about it.

Compare this with the possibility of choosing “System energy” as a benchmark where we want to ultimately reach. Our attention would then be focused on identifying & removing the restrictions in a given situation guided by types of restrictions cited above. This focus would help us to identify cases where the collaboration leads to increased restrictions like when two persons can’t just get together or two teams end up having fights whenever they have to work together. Understanding the real reason would help us to quickly take the corrective actions. In either case, both whether working together reduces or increases the restrictions on interactions, as we understand the reasons and take quick actions, we feel happy and this motivates us further to move towards the full potential of synergy.

To summarize, the term Synergy has traditionally been defined and used in a certain way, including in the latest book “The 3rd Alternative” by the bestselling author Stephen R. Covey. This approach seems mysterious & illusive to me. Through this blog, I am exploring another possibility where we define it differently, set the benchmark accordingly and deal with it realistically. It could open up new possibilities of tapping the abundant energy present in all human systems which is potentially available to other systems participating in or interacting with it, provided they can work on removing the restrictions placed on their interactions. The main benefit of this approach would be that we can take charge of our actions and adopt an attitude of “we can and we will”. This rational approach to identify & remove the restrictions on our freedom will release the tremendous synergy available in the systems we deal with. Give it a thought and share your views.

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