Change Thinking

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Categories: Synergy

This is the last post in my series on developing synergistic work teams. I have been describing a four-phase model that includes Interacting, Appreciative Understanding, Integrating, and Implementing.

Phase IV: Implementing

Finally, all the hard work of communicating, and appreciating and merging divergent views begins to pay off. The synergy process I’ve been describing has many benefits:

  • Enhancing communication among sponsors, agents, and targets
  • Developing work climates where different options about a change can be dealt with in an open, positive manner where diversity is valued
  • Establishing a change environment that promotes creative problem solving and a willingness of individuals to modify their positions in order to merge various perspectives (although this also occurs)
  • Providing a relationship framework between practitioner and client that fosters productive application and learning

As important as these advantages are, they are not enough. The bottom line for the synergy I’m describing is the successful execution of important organizational changes. All the previous synergistic activities must combine to produce a powerful force for implementing change-oriented action plans.

The last phase of the synergy process is intended to focus the momentum that has been generated in the preceding phases and channel it toward accomplishment of the initiative at hand. The necessary conditions in this phase are basically sound management practices. Their uniqueness lies not on the conditions themselves, but in what these “basics of management” are attempting to advance—1 + 1 > 2 working relationships dedicated to realizing important change.. It is important to manage this energy force as we would any other valuable resource…carefully and with forethought.

There are four basic conditions necessary for the Implementing Phase.


Establish specific, measurable goals and objectives regarding change implementation.

People working within synergistic relationships realize the necessity to plan action steps that are specific, measurable, and goal oriented. Without such direction, it is virtually impossible to manage resources, determine priorities, or ensure individual activities are compatible.

The “greater than” symbol (>) in the synergistic equation is in itself a statement of measurement. Without a baseline to judge progress, how can the effect of the change be verified? Production or delivery of services should be measured before and after the change implementation to indicate synergistic growth in output capabilities. Synergy can only be achieved by setting challenging, but attainable, realization-based goals. When reached, these goals establish new standards for subsequent efforts.

Monitor implementation progress and supply necessary reinforcement to ensure success.

When implementing action plans, synergistic relationships don’t rely solely on being definitive about change goals; they also maintain oversight on the progress or problems that develop. This follow-through behavior is important to task completion, and in its absence, many otherwise sound action plans tend to fail.

Poor tracking of change results is typically not the result of laziness. The lack of a monitoring posture by those implementing organizational change usually occurs because of a misunderstanding about how people relate to stated goals. Once a common goal has been established and declared as important to accomplish, many people operate as if all parties involved will continue to perceive that goal in the same way. They assume no new environmental factors will impact efforts toward goal achievement. To the contrary, if there is one constant that should be planned for, it is the ongoing modification of perceptions. Human beings have a vast capacity for shifting viewpoints, attitudes, or feelings regarding any event, and this is especially true during organizational change.

Today’s world, including our work environments, is a constantly shifting arena. New variables are introduced continuously. Such turbulence requires unending vigilance and an early-warning feedback system to identify and address new dangers or opportunities that could hinder realization of the intended outcomes. Far too many organizational change plans are defeated simply because of a lack of ability and/or willingness on the part of the sponsors to take a firm position on the necessity for task accomplishment. Equally true, positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior and progress is an absolute requirement for successful transformational change.

Implement change plans at a speed and in a manner that acknowledges the needs of all the key constituencies.

Working in a synergistic relationship requires that people remain sensitive to the needs represented by three domains or frames of reference—individuals, teams, and the organizational view of reality.

Often, individual members have varying perceptions or capacities related to a change event. It is not unusual for sponsors, agents, and targets to respond quite differently to an impending change. When this happens in non-synergistic climates, people sometimes begin to operate at their own speed, knowledge, and competency levels while decreasing their joint participation with other members. For example, agents may find it too frustrating or slow to work with targets, so they develop implementation plans on their own.

For most people, it seems only natural that those more competent at a task should move ahead faster than the others. This would be the case but for one thing: In determining that the change required a synergistic approach, the sponsors, agents, and targets have already acknowledged the need for “interdependent” activity among themselves (condition I-A).

What this means is that individuals may sometimes need to operate at less than their full potential so that the total implementation team can remain a unified work unit. Demonstration of advanced individual capabilities should be limited to tasks not requiring synergistic teamwork. Superstars operating primarily in their own best interest gain a lot of attention, but they don’t consistently win ball games.

The dynamics of this “individual versus group capability” struggle is also applicable when an entire team attempts to implement action plans within an organization. For example, if a work group involved in executing a specific change has a significantly higher understanding of and readiness for the shift than other groups being affected, particular care should be exercised. Choosing to proceed with the implementation at its own speed and ignoring signals of resistance from others in the system could prove fatal for the project. Many technically sound change plans have faltered because of the inability of the implementing team to understand the psychological reasons other impacted groups might resist, as well as how and at what speed to respond to such resistance.

Modify the implementation plan when necessary to ensure it is relevant to current reality.

Turbulent environments produce constantly shifting variables. Reacting to these shifts in a way that facilitates realization requires a constant updating of action plans. This includes administering positive or negative reinforcement (condition IV-B, described earlier in this post), but sometimes the people don’t need to change—the plans do.

A common error among architects of change is “falling in love” with their original plans. They identify so closely with the path they have formulated that they can’t distinguish between resistance to the plans and a personal attack. When this happens, they tend to invest more energy in defending their course of actions than they do working toward solving the problem or achieving the change’s true intent. When resistance to a change is surfaced, the synergistic relationships involved must be capable of either applying the appropriate reinforcement, redesigning the implementation plans, or both.

Another problem with becoming too attached or ego-invested in action plans is that such behavior tends to cause people to violate various conditions in the model. Critical to the entire synergistic process is an ongoing commitment to the four “necessary conditions” described in each of the phases. In a sense, the ultimate condition for success is to stay true to the conditions.


When people combine their efforts on a task, the capacity to operate together effectively can be characterized as either self-destructive (1 + 1 < 2), static (1 + 1 = 2), or synergistic (1 + 1 > 2). Synergistic relationships have many advantages over the self-destructive and static types of working relationships. The most important benefit is the optimal use of resources needed to adapt successfully to ongoing change. Synergy, though often difficult to achieve, is worth the investment of time and effort when applied to critically important change endeavors.

The process by which people can develop and utilize synergistic relationships includes meeting certain prerequisites and applying a four-phase model.


  • Sobering Implications: There are significant consequences associated with succeeding or failing to realize the change’s intended outcomes.
  • Common goal: People focus on relevant, shared activities and minimize or eliminate time spent on nonessential concerns and issues.
  • Interdependence: This sets the stage for unified action to maximize the participation of each key player.

The Four-Phase Synergy Process

The phases of the synergistic process are interdependent in nature, with each presupposed by the others.

Phase I: Interacting
  • Provides the necessary conditions to enable people to communicate effectively
  • Develops a facilitating climate in which negative judgments are delayed, active empathy is demonstrated, and divergent perspectives are legitimized and valued
  • Allows for the merging of individual viewpoints into a common perspective that can be supported by all
  • Channels synergistic energy into goal-directed, measurable action plans that reflect sensitivity toward individual members, the team, and the organization
  • Establishes a vehicle for the culmination of the earlier stages
Phase II: Appreciative Understanding
Phase III: Integrating
Phase IV: Implementing

Choose the appropriate time to build synergistic relationships.

In this series, I have described how I think synergy works and provided a model for developing it among key players in the change process. Since the early ’80s, when the dynamics supporting synergy became clear for me and the four-phase model was developed, it has been applied to countless people in numerous  organizations throughout the world. It has proven useful at virtually every point in the change process:

  • When the practitioner and client are first embarking on a particular endeavor, to create a solid foundation during early contracting about their expectations for a working relationship
  • While organizational change is being considered or during initial planning, to provide early identification of potential areas of  target resistance to synergy
  • Before the change has been announced, to determine discrepancies between sponsors’ and targets’ expectations regarding the change and one another’s roles
  • Any time after the announcement has been made, to identify specific areas of opposition between sponsor and target frames of reference and to provide corrective measures
  • After project implementation is complete, to assess if a  synergistic advantage was achieved once the implementation process is finished

As professional change facilitators, we play a vital role in enabling the synergistic advantage to materialize for our clients.

It has been my experience that non-synergistic interactions are prevalent within many implementation efforts. Much of the time, what is missing is a model to better understand and provide guidance for developing 1+1>2 relationships.

It is my belief that weak synergy among sponsors, agents, and targets or between practitioners and their clients is usually the result of human habit, not human nature. The difference is that habits can be modified. My hope is that sharing this synergy framework might serve other practitioners who are trying to foster this kind of interaction with their clients.

There are many ways our profession encourages synergistic relationships during change. This series reflects only one. I urge you to share what your experience has shown as helpful in this area as well.

Go to the beginning of the series.

Posted on: January 24, 2012 01:42 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

How to Merge Diverse Viewpoints

Categories: Synergy

This post is the fifth in a series about ways to foster synergy during major transformational initiatives, using a four-phase model that includes Interacting, Appreciative Understanding, Integrating, and Implementing.

Phase III: Integrating

Effective communication (Phase I) and valuing others’ perspectives (Phase II) are important elements of developing synergistic outcomes, but they’re not enough. Synergy is the result of communicating, valuing, and merging diverse viewpoints. As with the other two phases, accomplishing this integration is extremely difficult because many organizational cultures don’t teach and reward the skills needed to do so.

There are four basic conditions necessary for the Integrating Phase.


Tolerate ambiguity and persist in the struggle for new possibilities.

Because the synergy process is so difficult to accomplish, it is essential to emphasize two critical behaviors people need to demonstrate toward each other—embracing uncertainty and showing determination.

Assimilating different perspectives during major change is usually not possible without a considerable investment of time, effort, and patience. The necessity of this investment surfaces yet another problem that hampers the synergistic process—the tendency people have to look for rapid solutions when faced with convoluted, ambiguous situations.

For those who are comfortable only in clearly defined situations conducive to rapid, rational remedies, this phase may pose a considerable challenge. H.L. Mencken said it best: “For every complex problem in the world, there exists a simple solution that is always wrong.” Resolution of problems faced when implementing change is not always clear cut. Sometimes people have to muddle their way through contradictory, inaccurate, misleading, and/or vague information. Often, this is not the result of sloppy data collection. It is because reality can be, at times, overwhelming in its complexity. Change-related problem solving is typically a process of living in and even valuing the ambiguity of the circumstances until order can be brought to the chaos.

Modify any views, beliefs, and behavior necessary to support others.

A common problem that exists in increasing synergy is the lack of openness to being influenced by others. Sponsors and agents are particularly vulnerable to this problem because there is often a tendency for them to view targets as unsophisticated, uninformed, or unconcerned about the organizational issues related to the change. This causes sponsors and agents to be unwilling at times to negotiate modifications in the implementation plan with targets.

Such behavior is contrary to building synergistic working relationships. Synergy occurs when key players involved in the transition modify their views to accept and integrate the perspectives of others.

Generate creative ways of merging diverse perspectives into new, mutually supported alternatives.

When key players attempt to integrate their diverse perspectives into mutually supported action plans, creative thinking is an absolute necessity. There are occasions when the various divergent input from sponsors, agents, and targets seems to fit together logically. At other times, it is important to break out of established analytical thought patterns and look at the diverse input in new ways. This is a shift from judgment-based to imagination-based thought, or what de Bono referred to as moving from vertical to lateral thinking.[1]

Logic is the tool used to dig holes deeper and bigger to make them better holes. If the hole is in the wrong place, however, no amount of digging is going to put it in the right place. This may seem obvious, but for many people caught up in the excavation process, it is easier to go on digging in the same place than to start all over again in a new place. Vertical thinking can be compared to digging the same hole deeper; lateral thinking means trying again elsewhere.

Successfully merging the different viewpoints and options of key people involved in major change requires, at times, a great deal of lateral thinking. Creative problem solving is not always taught or rewarded in organizational cultures; therefore, many change-related collaborators are at a disadvantage.

Identify the issues and concepts that cannot or should not be integrated.

It is important at this point to call attention to the fact that synergistic implementation is not a panacea for all organizational change efforts. Divergent frames of reference from sponsors, agents, and targets cannot always be merged, even after applying the steps previously described. Nor can practitioners and their clients always integrate their viewpoints. It is not inevitable that it is in the parties’ best interests to merge certain mindsets or ideas  (e.g., it is too costly; values will be violated if integration takes place).

Step III-D in the table above represents “caution” in the synergy process. This condition is a balancing factor to the importance placed earlier on tolerating ambiguity and being persistent (III-A). Too much emphasis on the need to continue struggling for integration, when it looks hopeless, is dangerous. Deciding too early that integration cannot or should not be pursued is equally dangerous. Synergy occurs when people have balanced their tenacity for creative reconciliation with their unwillingness to waste time and effort if integration is not feasible.

Next: Ways to direct “synergy energy” toward realizing goals

Go to the beginning of the series.


[1] Edward de Bono (1971). Lateral Thinking for Management, American Management Association.


Posted on: January 17, 2012 11:44 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Value and Utilize Diversity to Build Synergy

Categories: Synergy

In this series about fostering synergy, I’m sharing a sequence of activities that typically unfolds as synergistic relationships play out. It includes four phases: Interacting, Appreciative Understanding, Integrating, and Implementing.

Phase II: Appreciative Understanding

Although miscommunication can be part of what contributes to 1+1 = 2 and 1+1 < 2 results, in many situations, a lack of communication skills is not the real problem. People involved in the classic interpersonal struggle often communicate very well with each other—so well, in fact, that they know exactly why they disagree with each other.

This happens all the time when implementing organizational change. Sponsors and targets communicate so clearly with each other that each is convinced of the other’s insincerity or incompetence. Even “normal” interpersonal exchanges aren’t enough for transformational endeavors. Synergy demands something beyond adequate communication; it requires “appreciative understanding”—the capacity to value and utilize the diversity that exists in the relationship.

The difficulty in appreciating views that are different from our own stems, in part, from the importance many organizations place on the rational, linear, left-hemispheric thinking processes that encourage critical analysis. The use of critical thinking is an important aspect of human consciousness, but overuse of anything, even a strength such as logical processing, causes it to become a weakness. The weakness in this case occurs when reliance on reasoning (isolating events, separating what is “right” and “wrong,” and looking for ways something will not work) is overemphasized and little value is placed on the right-hemispheric way of thinking. (Merging two opposing perspectives into one that is supported by all parties, or looking for ways to make something work that appears to be impossible are examples of right-hemisphere thinking.) For sponsors, agents, and targets to operate synergistically, a balance is required of both the rational, critical process (Phases I and IV) and the inventive, merging process (Phases II and III).

There are four basic conditions necessary for the Appreciative Understanding Phase.


Create an open climate to surface differences appropriately.

Synergy involves the merging of diverse perspectives. To interact effectively, people must have trust and credibility with each other and be able to disagree about some aspects of the change. For these differences to be dealt with productively, there must exist a commitment among the people to surface and address such issues in a timely and deliberate manner that is conducive to resolution. This requires a belief that conflict, if used appropriately, is not negative, but a necessary part of merging different viewpoints.

Many people have been taught to review relevant data about a problem and reject information or possible solutions that do not fit the accepted frame of reference. This rejection process continues until a single answer remains.

Decision dynamics like these are apparent in many change implementation efforts. For example, when seeking a solution to a change-oriented problem, sponsors, agents, and targets have a tendency to reject the “obviously inappropriate” suggestions each group offers the others. A mutually acceptable solution, if found at all, is identified as the one that made it through the gauntlet—the one that no group could reject. Such an attitude toward joint problem solving can consume large amounts of time and energy while people engage in the circular activity represented by the illustration.


This circular process produces a defensive, unpleasant climate, and people experience conflict as something “bad” that is to be avoided. To the contrary, conflict—if viewed as an ally—can be the vehicle for clarifying facts, stimulating new insights, and creating original solutions. By preventing the typical “win-lose” conflict climate and encouraging a “win-win” atmosphere, people learn to be positive about conflict and realize that it is useful to surface their differences. As a result, people look to solve problems rather than win battles.

Delay forming negative judgments about others’ ideas, beliefs, feelings, attitudes, behavior, or concerns.

In order to increase appreciative understanding, sponsors, agents, and targets (as well as practitioners and their clients) must feel free to express their thoughts and feelings about the change without fear of being attacked or otherwise given the message that their input is not valuable. This requires discipline by all parties to delay forming negative judgments about input from others.

Most innovative ideas or new perspectives about a change are as vulnerable as babies at birth—they cannot survive unless someone takes responsibility for their protection and development. It would be unthinkable to attack a newborn baby the way we do other people’s ideas. “Look at this kid—it can’t walk, talk, or control its bodily functions. This baby is no good at all!”

Occasionally, new ideas are sound enough at birth to stand the stress of critical analysis. Most, however, will die without the help of those hearing them for the first time. Of course, there is a point when the shortcomings of innovative ideas or new perspectives regarding change must be addressed. By delaying the negative focus so that it does not occur too early or too harshly, however, innovative thinking has time to be modified and developed further, thus minimizing the unfavorable features.

Empathize with others and view alternative perspectives as legitimate.

A person who is capable of actively empathizing with another person accomplishes two things:

  • Connects at both a knowledge and emotional level with what that person is expressing as well as the depth of his or her experience
  • Expresses that knowledge/emotion/depth in a manner that conveys to the other person a full comprehension

Demonstrating empathy for another person’s thoughts, feelings, and experience—especially when that person expresses a divergent viewpoint—is a powerful tool for facilitating synergy within a work team. By empathizing with each other, sponsors, agents, and targets can extend the communication, trust, and credibility initiated in Phase I to form even stronger bonds and accelerate each other’s effectiveness.

Rather than rejecting the different perspectives or ideas offered, demonstrating empathy toward each other allows the parties to realize the legitimacy of various viewpoints. For example, it is critical to a target’s attitude toward a change that the sponsors and agents express an accurate understanding of what impact the change will have on the target’s life. It is equally important for targets to demonstrate some degree of empathy for the pressures and responsibilities of the sponsors and agents.

The fact that people empathize with each other does not mean that those with different opinions will always agree about what should be done. What is possible, however, is that each person can see, from the others’ vantage points, that the divergent positions are understandable. This behavior promotes quite a contrast to the typical non-synergistic climate in which people view perspectives other than their own as “crazy,” “stupid,” “out in left field,” or “immature.”

Value diversity and identify positive characteristics about others’ viewpoints.

Valuing the diversity that exists in working relationships enables something special to occur that is vital to the process of synergy. Many people only willingly contribute to a task when they feel accepted and affirmed. When the people who play key roles during change demonstrate confirming and appreciative behavior toward one another, they feel encouraged to invest even more.

For example, sponsors need to be open and positive about suggestions and feedback from agents and targets concerning change implementation. The real challenge occurs when the input from agents and targets is not consistent with what the sponsors perceive or want to be true. Synergy is enhanced any time alternative perspectives are reinforced. This is particularly true when the differences that are surfaced represent a strong polarization of views.

A central characteristic of synergy is that, while working on a task, people liberate resources (time and energy) rather than wasting them or draining them off. This results in an increase in resource availability, but it doesn’t appear magically. It is realized through the combined efforts of people working together cohesively and feeling important, understood, trusted, and protected.

When faced with different opinions about the change, people operating synergistically go beyond establishing the appropriate climate, delaying negative judgments, and empathizing with one another. They commit themselves to viewing diversity from a positive position before identifying any concerns that may exist.

Unfortunately, when agents or targets offer ideas about how a change can be handled, the situation often resembles a skeet shoot. Sponsors overtly attack the input or use a subtle, placating style of simply ignoring what is said. An idea is only accepted when the sponsors can’t shoot it down.

Synergistic implementation reverses these roles, and the responsibility for defending a person’s idea or input is not with the one who offers, but with the receiver. For example, when the targets’ ideas are presented, the sponsor takes responsibility for supporting that effort and finding usable aspects of their perspectives.

In a synergistic atmosphere, everyone agrees to search for the positive characteristics of a divergent perspective before identifying any problems with that view. Such behavior generates an accepting climate for input, and forces people to view the contributions of others from the others’ perspectives.

Next: Building synergy by merging diverse viewpoints among team members.

Go to the beginning of the series.

Posted on: January 10, 2012 11:38 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Four Ways Communication Can Build Synergy in Work Teams

Categories: Synergy

In this series, I’m discussing what I’ve learned about fostering synergy during major transformational initiatives.

If people have the willingness to forge their diverse perspectives into a synergistic alliance, the following sequence can be used to describe how they can work together to realize change. The four phases outlined are Interacting, Appreciative Understanding, Integrating, and Implementing.

Phase I: Interacting

A basic condition for synergy is that the key players must effectively interact with each other. If iron and nickel are never brought into contact with each other, the process of making steel is impossible. The same is true for people. For sponsors, agents, and targets; or practitioners and their clients to work synergistically, they must be able to communicate effectively.

People who attempt to work together, but who have little or no opportunity to interact, often generate a cyclically degenerating climate (see illustration below). In such a relationship, people tend to respond in one of four ways:

  • They become confused or angry due to normal misunderstandings that go unresolved.
  • They begin to blame others. Each party sees only positive characteristics in himself or herself, while seeing only negative characteristics in others.
  • They generate feelings of suspicion and alienation that lead to further isolation.
  • They feel increasingly hostile and reduce their interaction with the other party. This lowers the possibility of seeing things in a different way, which generates more misunderstanding.


To avoid this destructive cycle, people working together to implement change must communicate effectively. There are many methods for ensuring this happens; to list all of them would be more overwhelming than helpful. Instead, I’ll focus on the most basic conditions necessary for synergistic interaction.

There are four conditions necessary in the Interacting Phase:


Commit to the work involved.

Synergistic teamwork can require a great deal of time and energy. Each person engaged in the process must be prepared to commit the resources necessary to participate fully. To reinforce this commitment, the sponsor should set the expectation that synergistic participation is or will be a component of performance reviews. The sponsor can also demonstrate commitment by not assigning additional, distracting duties and by setting priorities among other projects so they don’t compete with the critical changes that must be executed.

Use direct, clear, consistent communication.

For the interaction that occurs to have optimal impact, the people involved must have the capacity to communicate effectively with each other (verbally, nonverbally, and in writing). There are three common errors in interpersonal communication during change that diminish synergistic capacity:

  • Indirection: Using a third party inappropriately to convey a message; or using vague, obscure language
  • Distortion: Not accurately perceiving what others are expressing or want because of predetermined ideas or stereotyping
  • Incongruence: Conveying verbal messages that are inconsistent with internal feelings or observable decisions/behaviors

It is important to reinforce that both willingness and ability are vital in determining a person’s prognosis for synergistic relationships. A person may have the ability to communicate directly and with little distortion, but choose not to do so because of perceived negative consequences for doing so. Likewise, a person or group may want desperately to communicate, but may not have the necessary skills to or they may be prohibited from communicating by organizational policies or procedures. In either case, this condition for synergy is not satisfied.

Actively listen to the facts and feelings expressed by others.

There are two facets to communications—the content of a message and the feelings or attitudes underlying the content. Both aspects are important because one without the other is only part of the intended message.

Although most people consider themselves to be good listeners, research has shown that the average untrained person listens at about 25 percent efficiency. It gets worse under the stress of change, where comprehension can drop to as low as 20% of what is said or written.

Realizing the importance of listening, synergistic relationships tend to utilize “active listening” skills, where the listener accepts a major portion of the responsibility for the accuracy of the messages received. He or she stays alert for the verbal and nonverbal signals that convey the feelings as well as the content of the message, and uses feedback methods to verify the message. When people believe they are listened to and understood, they are generally more willing to participate and offer their views, ideas, and new thoughts.

Communicate in a way that generates trust and credibility.

Trust among key players in change is important; those without it become defensive. This causes a wide range of symptoms such as poor listening, indirectness, high distortion, and incongruence in communication.

Credibility refers to the value one person or group attaches to another’s level of expertise and honesty. This is important when implementing change. Without credibility, collaborators are hesitant to act on each other’s information.

Trust and credibility, combined with interdependence, effective communication, and active listening constitute the necessary conditions for this first phase of the synergistic process.

Next: How to value and use the diversity that exists in working relationships

Go to the beginning of the series.

Posted on: December 20, 2011 06:53 PM | Permalink | Comments (1)

A Process for Building Organizational Synergy

Categories: Synergy

This series is about the impact synergistic working relationships have on the outcomes of organizational change.

Before people can create and maintain synergistic relationships, two things must occur:

  • They must be willing to engage this way with others
  • They must demonstrate the abilities associated with a four-phase model: Interacting, Appreciative Understanding, Integrating, and Implementing[1]

The Willingness to Engage—A Prerequisite for Synergy

Dramatic change brings to the surface many divergent views about the direction of the transition and how it should unfold. Healthy nonconformity and oppositional thinking are essential aspects of the creative process when breakthrough problem solving and innovation is called for. However, contending with different perspectives, if not managed properly, can also be energy draining and counterproductive. It is clearly easier sometimes to avoid, ignore, or smooth over contrasting opinions (particularly when they are strongly held). Why is it then, that under the right conditions, people do just the opposite and willingly surface— even celebrate—their differences? The motivation to pursue, rather than circumvent, divergent opinions stems from people who share three views:

  • The seriousness of the circumstances they face
  • Their common goal(s)
  • A sense of interdependence with each other

Synergistic relationships are not easy to develop and maintain. As a result, most people are willing to invest what’s needed only if a significant positive upside can be gained and/or a negative downside avoided. If this is the case, a common goal can set direction. When individuals and/or groups share the same desired outcome, their energies and actions can become powerfully focused on the activities necessary to achieve that result. When a common goal is at the center of committed action, fewer resources are wasted on hidden agendas or activities inconsistent with realizing the goal.

As important as the sharing of common goals is, however, it is insufficient by itself to generate synergy. Interdependence is also needed to set the stage for meaningful unified action. People involved in synergistic working relationships recognize that their goals cannot be achieved without key contributions from all those playing critical roles. Those who are unwilling to acknowledge this, and act independently, represent a significant detriment to synergistic results.

A willingness to contribute to synergy is reflected in what can be called a “foxhole[2] relationship—a situation where two or more people share a sense of urgency about the situation they are facing. They are invested in achieving a common goal and they must rely on each other to accomplish it. For dramatic transformative change to take place, a foxhole mindset must exist among sponsors, agents, and targets, as well as between the change practitioner and the sponsor he or she serves.

The willingness (motivation) to work with others sets the stage for the actions needed to achieve the synergistic advantage. Those involved in major endeavors must  also demonstrate specific abilities related to how they develop their ideas and implement their action plans.

The Ability to Engage—The Four Phases of Synergy

The synergistic process is distinguished by four skill sets:

  • Interacting: Synergistic communication occurs when diverse perspectives, ideas, meanings, attitudes, feelings, and values are expressed and received openly and honestly in a supportive environment.
  • Appreciative Understanding: This is a nurturing atmosphere characterized by people who recognize and value their distinct frames of reference regarding the task at hand.
  • Integrating: Only when appreciative understanding is established can individuals seek ways to merge or combine their separate views into mutually supportive patterns for thinking and acting. It is during this integration phase that individuals invent and experiment with creative ways to move beyond their current thinking.
  • Implementing: Merely finding innovative approaches to integrate various viewpoints is not enough. It is only through active planning, goal setting, discipline, and consistent application of various change facilitating methods that a transition can be successfully achieved. Without a structured implementation plan, the likelihood is low that a synergistic advantage will occur.

Although I mentioned in the first post that many change practitioners lack a solid grasp of the conditions that promote synergy, the necessary components are actually all around us most of the time. It’s just that, to the untrained eye, it’s not always easy to see the exponential impact that results when they are combined properly. In this regard, I really have nothing new to offer about the components when seen separately. We are used to seeing each skill set in its own right, but it is when they are sequenced—as I’ll outline here—that they build on each other and merge into a unique and powerful source of energy and creativity. This is when synergy unfolds.

I’ll run the risk of detailing some familiar ground around the separate components as the series progresses, but this is necessary to open a new perspective on two key focal points:

  • The order and composition of the building blocks of synergy
  • Their intertwined relationship, which produces the 1 + 1 > 2 outcomes

The table below outlines what is necessary for key players to generate a synergistically implemented change. I will discuss each of the phases in more detail in the posts to follow.


Next: Build synergy by helping team members communicate

Go to the beginning of the series.

[1]These four steps were first used by Henry Nelson Wieman in his book describing the creative process, Man’s Ultimate Commitment, University Press of America, Inc., 1991.


[2] Military research during the Vietnam War era found reduced racial conflict among African-American and white soldiers when those soldiers had to rely upon one another in conflict situations, such as being in a foxhole facing the enemy. When their mutual defense necessitated cooperation, racial discord often vanished, as least as long as the urgency of the situation lasted. They shared a common goal (survival), and they knew that without genuine cooperation (interdependence) they would not achieve that goal.

Posted on: December 13, 2011 05:23 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

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