Synthesis – The Key Process to Lasting Change

If you haven’t read the work of Dr. Russ Ackoff, you should. I became acquainted with his work a few years ago, and I was immediately drawn to his approach and his style.   He reminds me of my dad.  Like my dad, he was an architect by trade, and a driven systems thinker.

As I launch into another critically important change effort in my career, I’m aware of the importance of a key systems thinking lesson:

Leading change in a complex system is a holistic process, characterized by an understanding of the “system whole”. It’s not the sum of the behavior of its component parts, but their interactions that count.


Analysis – The Way We Learn
As children, we are explorers. We learn rapidly, and one of the ways we learn is by breaking things. Literally breaking them…not always because we’re destructive (although it looks that way). Sometimes we simply want to know how something works — so we break it. We take it apart, all the way down to the core objects it’s built from. We do this so we understand how the thing works. We are, in practice, “analyzing” the world.

In school, we are taught to solve problems exactly the same way. Take a problem and break it apart. Break it down into the smallest parts we can so we can understand the problem in an attempt to come up with a solution. We do this in school, and as kids, very naturally. As we learn, analysis is actually a very powerful concept, and in simple systems (or even mathematical equations for instance) analysis helps us quickly solve problems, often with ease.

The Complex Systems Challenge
In a complex system, a problem arises. Analysis doesn’t always get us there.  By way of a grossly oversimplified “Ackoff” example, you (you, the complex system and human being) cannot be understood or defined by your component parts. (Humor me) and think about your hand. Your hand does not write — YOU write. To test the theory, separate your hand from YOU and see what it does. Similarly, your brain doesn’t think, YOU think.  Your feet don’t run, YOU run.  You get the point….

The same can be true of automobiles. If you take the best car components available today from all the manufacturers and put them together (best engine, best suspension, best alternator, best transmission, etc), would it yield the best car in the world? The answer is obviously NO. You wouldn’t even have a car. The pieces don’t fit!

With these examples, Ackoff teaches the critical lesson.

A complex system can only be defined by the interactions of its parts, not the parts taken separately. It is the interaction of the parts that counts!

In this way, “synthesis” is the key concept, not analysis. And synthesis is not natural for humans (kids or adults), and worse, its rarely taught in school.

What does this mean for business?
Businesses (or projects, or divisions, or schools) are also incredibly complex systems. As such, the primary leverage to understand (and change) a business should be its component interactions, NOT the components themselves. We sadly don’t run businesses this way. We systematically break them apart in an effort to improve. We align ourselves by departments, silos, component parts. We work like crazy to make each department “perfect” and then try to put perfect pieces back together, all under the pretext of improvement. As system thinkers know, this improvement is an illusion.

As I reflect on the journey I’ve taken in my career, I realize I’ve fallen victim to this gap in awareness over and over. The awareness that analyzing problems in complex systems isn’t enough. And all along the way, many (I should say most) of my leaders and managers have been cheering me on from the sidelines – cheering me toward certain disappointment. It’s what makes us all comfortable, like kids in the driveway taking apart our toys to see how they work.

Happily, through some sort of cosmic serendipity, I find myself in an organization challenging itself to think differently. An organization hungry to change, yet patiently aware of the analysis trap that lay in front of us.  I’m hopeful.

I will let you know what we learn.

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