Our first connection with the word synthesis probably happens for most of us in Biology class; photosynthesis. A plant’s amazing ability alongside some bacteria and some protistans, to use the energy from sunlight to produce glucose from carbon dioxide and water and then oxygen from converting glucose into pyruvate which releases adenosine triphosphate (ATP) by cellular respiration. OK — too technical already?
It was many decades after Biology O Level that I came across the word again when first looking at psychosynthesis as a way of stitching myself back together again after a bout of deep depression. Psychosynthesis is part of a wider movement of psychospiritual development, exploration and enquiry. It’s sometimes called a ‘transpersonal’ approach because it integrates the spiritual aspect of human experience. My all too brief time studying with the Sundial Centre showed me how psychosynthesis really helps people map and navigate human experience, rather like having a toolbox for life.
In the world as it is today for which the most current and popular acronym is Volatile Uncertain Complex and Ambiguous (VUCA), the ability to synthesise — understand and make sense of what is going on and transform that into something actionable — has never been more important and valuable, and yet it’s not valued a highly as it could be.
Synthesisers are natural born systems thinkers. They can see the relationships between interrelated and interdependent parts, and non-related and non-dependent parts that could, together, be more than the sum of its parts. They understand that changing one part of the system affects other parts and the whole system, and can often see the predictable patterns of behaviour that might emerge during that change. They have broadly applicable knowledge of concepts and principles, as opposed to one single domain of knowledge that experts have.
In the business world, synthesis isn’t a ‘role’, and yet there are many people in business who are synthesisers. The most obvious to me are Creative Directors. The creative process for developing a new ad or communications campaign is not at all unlike a journey through Otto Scharmer’s Theory U. I use this because it’s what I’ve spent a lot of my life doing so I understand its relevance.
What’s the similarity between the Creative Process and Synthesis?
How do we create a new communications campaign? We create a framework inside which we will develop a new campaign. We shape that framework with key questions — the why, how, what, where, when, how far…. — but at the start it is an empty vessel which holds an space full of potential that vibrates with new life and energy as we start to build the sides of the cauldron.
We gather information: about the company, the people in it, their existing strategy, services or products. We understand where they are now. We gather more information about the external environment; who else is doing this? How? Why? What’s more innovative? What trends are going to have an impact on us? Competitive, political, economic, technological, social…..
We gather, we listen, we learn, we drop it all into the mix. We take somethings out that don’t fit with the creative framework.
And then we sit and wait. The Creative Pause. That painful, fearful, exciting, glorious time while you are just waiting for something new to emerge. When all the research, listening and thinking starts to bubble away in its private cauldron waiting to give birth to a new soup. The creative idea that is going to make all the difference.
Why is it painful? Because you never ever truly know when it’s going to arrive. Sometimes it feels as if it never will. The anxiety and paranoia of creative directors is well known! It’s just that they have learned to sit with the cauldron and wait, and often while they do they they punish themselves with fear that the answer won’t this time emerge. In front of the whole judgemental world.
But it does. Suddenly it sparks into life. The moment when synthesis happens and something new is born.
A Creative Director’s role isn’t just to synthesise new creative platforms for clients. One of the most important parts of this role is constant curiosity. A hunger for learning that often encompasses every field of study imaginable. It involves endless hours in art galleries, conferences, social studies, books, looking at other businesses, emergent exponential technology, in conversations about the future human state. Learning everything and anything that may be able to be dropped into that cauldron at the most appropriate moment. This is synthesis of knowledge. The more you know, the more you can drop into the mix. The more you are likely to create the new and innovative. It takes phenomenal commitment and time. This is one of the reasons Creative Directors are so highly valued (and paid).
What roles can Synthesisers play in business?
The role of synthesisers in business today could come in many other forms. The most common ‘title’ or place for the role is R&D, Head of Innovation, Consumer Insight. Often the gatherers of information, and synthesisers of knowledge to inform future strategy. I think there may be others that are as yet unrecognised (and probably therefore unfunded) that are equally important to the future.
Business connectors are people who — often by virtue of having been around for a while — know many people with thousands of different skills, gifts and knowledge. They can often see exactly what an introduction of two disparate people or businesses could become if they co-created together. They have already imagined in their kinds a more expansive future if the conjoining takes place. Sometimes they can help it happen.
Harvesters of collective intelligence are also synthesizers. One of the most exciting developments in human consciousness is that the collected intelligence of a Creative Director is becoming more available as collective intelligence. Something we can all tap into and harvest. It doesn’t have to be terribly ‘woo-woo’, put in simple business terms it’s about recognising that the people at the coalface of ‘doing’ often know more about what’s going on and what’s needed than the people at the top of hierarchical organisations.
People who can sit with leadership teams and leaders, and ‘hold the space’for them to have the confidence and courage to allow emotion and humanity to re-emerge into the business environment are synthesisers. Executive coaches often play this role.
People who can bring their deep knowledge of different un-considered perspectives to a business, drop it into strategic conversations and help change the culture or direction of an organisation, are synthesisers. They’re helping to shape the boundaries of the framework for the cauldron in which new innovations can emerge.
People who can help disparate and diverse cultures communicate and understand one another are synthesisers. People who can see how to put together communications campaigns or change cultures to help an organisation move towards a future vision that might be incredibly disruptive or frightening for many people in the organisation, are synthesisers. Mike Barry at M&S Plan A is one of the best people I have ever met at this particular skill.
People who can act as a bridge between different ‘states’ whether that’s from the future to the now; across cultural, gender and character differences; from command/control organisational culture to more egalitarian; from one worldview to another, are synthesisers.
Great storytellers are synthesisers. Some of the best TED talks I’ve ever watched are those people who can take an enormous volume of specialist knowledge and translate it into something that anyone — even someone who has little or no idea about their subject — can understand.
In a world that is transitioning to a state where certainty is being replaced by beautiful uncertainty as something new waits to be born, I believe that synthesisers — the people who can help us make sense of what is going on so that we can stand on the shifting stands and keep moving forward — are vital to a thriving business future. Often they’re hidden in the shadows. Maybe they like it that way. And yet if we want to accelerate positive change, shouldn’t we recognise the role as valuable, important and necessary?
So if you’ve got this far, I invite you to celebrate any synthesisers you know below (if you feel they would welcome it).