S is for The Synergy Approach

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Synergy is when people combine their energies to create something greater than they could achieve separately by themselves. There are obviously two kinds of synergy.

Positive Synergy

This is when people combine their best qualities – such as caring, strengths and creativity – to produce positivity, ‘win-win’ outcomes and peak performance.

Negative Synergy

This is when people combine their worst qualities – such as prejudice, weaknesses and group think – to produce negativity, ‘win-lose’ or ‘lose-lose’ outcomes and poor performance.

Today the word synergy is used in business, sports and other areas where people combine their talents. But the term was used many years by the anthropologist Ruth Benedict.

She emphasised the idea of synergy after studying various cultures for her books, such as Patterns of Culture. Her work on this topic from the 1930s onwards was highlighted by Abraham Maslow.

Patterns of culture

Moving on from his work on self-actualising individuals, he focused on how to build groups, organisations or societies where people were able:

To fulfil their own needs.

To ensure that others could fulfil their needs.

This led to him reminding people of Ruth Benedict’s studies of various societies. Writing in the 1960s, he described her views of high and low synergy. These were:

Benedict’s Concept of High Synergy

A high synergy group or society is one in which the interests of individuals and the interests of the group as a whole are in harmony. This would produce a healthy group or society.

Benedict’s Concept of Low Synergy

A low synergy group or society is one in which the interests of individuals and the interests of the group as a whole are at odds. This would produce an unhealthy group or society.

Maslow’s views on this topic led to books such as Douglas McGregor’s The Human Side of Enterprise and Frederick Herzberg’s Work and the Nature of Man. The aim was to create organisations where people could fulfil their needs, combine their talents and produce superb work.

Creative Teamwork
and Synergy

Many people have explored how to provide the conditions that will enable people to produce synergy. The literature stretches back to volumes on how to create fulfilling work places and, for example, Utopian Societies.

From the 1970s onwards, however, it became more popular to focus on how people took responsibility for playing their part in building great teams.

Certainly leaders need to provide a compelling story – whether this is taking part in a Moon Shot, climbing a mountain or finding a medical cure – but people must choose to opt-in. This led to studying teams that performed great work and, as the oft-used phrase said, made ‘2+2=5’.

Warren Bennis was one of the many experts on leadership, for example, who turned their attention to creative teamwork. Working together with Patricia Ward Bierderman, he produced Organizing Genius: The Secrets of Creative Collaboration.

Organizing Genius

Writing in the Introduction, Warren referred to Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, who was a student of Ruth Benedict. Here is an excerpt.

This book was born forty years ago, in a conversation with Margaret Mead. Mead was already world renowned, as famous for her social activism as for her cultural anthropology.

I was a newly minted assistant professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One snowy night in Cambridge, I went to hear Mead lecture at Harvard. Afterward, I introduced myself, and we talked.

I had become interested in extraordinary collaborations, the process whereby Great Groups are able to accomplish so much more than talented people working alone.

I told Mead that I was interested in writing a book on how networks of gifted people have changed the world.

“That’s a wonderful idea,” Mead said, “especially since it’s never been done before. You should call it Sapiential Circles.”

Sapiential Circles was a term Mead used to describe how groups generate knowledge within their own community. The larger the group, the more knowledge is shared. Warren Bennis continues:

It would be decades before I completed that book on creative collaboration. During the intervening years, I became fascinated with leadership in its many forms and styles.

I interviewed hundreds of leaders in dozens of disciplines, trying to pinpoint the attitudes and behaviors that allow some leaders to succeed while others fail.

The more I learned, the more I realized that the usual way of looking at groups and leadership, as separate phenomena, was no longer adequate.

The most exciting groups – the ones, like those chronicled in this book, that shook the world – resulted from a mutually respectful marriage between an able leader and an assemblage of extraordinary people.

Groups become great only when everyone in them, leaders and members alike, is free to do his or her absolute best.

This book is about organizing gifted people in ways that allow them both to achieve great things and to experience the joy and personal transformation that such accomplishment brings.

In today’s Darwinian economy, only organizations that find ways to tap the creativity of their members are likely to survive.

Today it is commonplace for business leaders in charge of a takeover to say: “We are aiming to get synergies.” What they often mean, of course, is that they are aiming to make more money.

Warren Bennis and many others have studied how people can combine their talents to create synergy and perform great work.

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