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(see other entries from our Glossary).
Why is Synergy Hard to Define?
The word 'synergy' derives from the Greek word 'synergos' (συνεργός), simply meaning "working together". So why is it difficult to describe synergies in more detail? One reason is because the modern (Western) grammar sees the world in terms of separate nouns, rather than as dynamic conjunctions. Thus we think of evolution as a succession of design improvements, rather than as Nature's tendency to find new synergies (c.f. Corning, 1983). Although synergies exist all around us, most are unnoticed. This is because they have not been named and because they are so numerous. Many confound us because they work across the boundaries of language. This makes them hard to describe in words. It means, in practical terms, that we may need to language them into our conscious minds (see Relanguaging the Creative).
Why is Synergy Hard to Grasp?
Actually, defining synergies can be easier than noticing them, or working with them. A synergy is what you get when when you combine things and find that the result is of a higher quality or quantity than all of (or even some of) their ingredients. Buckminster Fuller's perspective was more useful when he described synergy as, "The behaviour of whole systems unpredicted by the separately observed behaviours of their parts taken separately" (Bucky Fuller). Fuller's account of number systems is unusual because of his insistence that the fundamental starting point is two, rather than one. If this sounds counterintuitive, it may be a good starting point for explaining why, in the 21st century, we still see the world in terms of singularities (e.g. objects and products), rather than as a teeming network of relations (e.g. useful synergies and bonds).
- Synergy from Ratio Precision (e.g. molecular gastronomy)
- Synergy from Combining Beneficial Assets (e.g. ?)
- Synergy from Combining Harmful Assets (e.g. stray dogs for prisoners)
- Synergy from Combining Beneficial and Harmful Assets (
- Synergy from Combining Sub-Optimal Systems (e.g. clusters of low-cost aero-generators)
- Keystone Synergy (e.g. synergies likely to seed further opportunities for synergy)
- Synergy from Form and Form
- Synergy from Form and other methods (e.g. some wood compression technologies can make it over 10X stronger than steel)
N.B. it is likely that no synergy is truly 'simple' because of the high level of interconnectedness of things the world. Nonetheless, it is useful to define some synergies as 'simple', because it enables us to design and manage them more easily. In the following examples, ingredients are shown as chemical elements whose combination leads to impressive outcomes.1. SALT - this important food is made by combining 2 unpleasant poisons.
The Logic of Mining, Shaping & Making
William Calvin (1997) has suggested that our ability to reason was acquired over millions of years of evolutionary development; emerging partly from the logic of lifting, carrying, dragging or throwing weighty objects around. Brain research has also shown that our verbal powers of reasoning are closely related to our ability to shape objects by hand. Perhaps the factors help to explain why it is more customary to think of the world in terms of single things, rather than as complex combinations and relations.
The Logic of Farming
After the invention of agriculture, around 10k years ago our ability to focus down onto individual tasks, such as mass production and bureaucracy. This has a bearing on management cultures that understand 'accountability', rather than 'responsibility', or 'impact', rather than 'synergy'. In short, if organisations are run purely according to the bureaucratic language and logic of dead objects, we risk treating living systems as though they are zombies. Modern industrial (Westernised) cultures usually see the the world in terms of several discrete assets that can be accounted for in quantities. As humans, our blind faith in mechanisms is not a recent development.
The Logic of Technology
Some of the simplifying principles behind this idea were established by Archimedes, Plato and Aristotle. For example, Plato was inspired by the batch production systems (Onians) in which he idealised the imagined (i.e. virtual) form of the product as more perfect (i.e. 'real') than what came off the assembly line. Aristotle's development of a logic of categories It was Galileo's hunch that heavy objects move in a predictable way that led Newton (1642-1726) to create his universal 'laws' of motion. Pierre Laplace (1749–1827) was so persuaded by Newton's grand hypothesis that he thought we could eventually use it to predict the future with total accuracy. All of these ideas imply that the world is a snooker table, (atoms, rather than waves) in which we can count on voters and account for things when they don't add up.
The Logic of Industry
Why do large organisations focus more on compliance and efficiency, rather than flexibility and fitness-to-context?
One reason is that standardization, quality control and strict accounting procedures enable them to scale-up their operations. In the 17th/18th century, scientists made it seem normal to break down complex problems into simple, repetitive tasks. By the 20th century these methods had evolved into a working culture based on strict 'measurements and targets'. The 'command and control' methods used on assembly-lines eventually migrated to other aspects of management.
Grammars of Empire
By contrast, we might describe synergy as the free 'bonus-asset' that we get by combining several existing assets in a suitable way. there are significant benefits in seeking synergy, rather than trying to have 'more' things. This is because a clever combination of things can (appear to) produce more than the sum of its ingredient parts. We believe that it is important to know how to understand by focusing on 'relations', rather than focusing simply on 'things'. Organisations only create value by (re)combining the right assets, at the right time, in the right way.''
Nature also combines adjacent/diverse/convenient things to create synergies for a synergy-of-synergies (Fuller, 1997:-)
In the 18th century, for example, economic theorists created the (somewhat pessimistic) 'law of diminishing returns'.
This was influenced by the practical economics of mining for, or extracting, inanimate, non-renewable resources.
It reminds us that the cost of exploiting these assets increases at the same time that their availability decreases.
This theory is still applied to farming, even though one would have assumed that food production is 'renewable'.
Similarly, traditional accountancy practices routinely ‘discount futures’ as though they have no value (Gollier, 2004).
For all of the above reasons, many of our tools are based on the 'Law of Increasing Returns'.
One of them is the quest for synergies.
These often occur where there is 'difference'.
They are especially abundant in living systems.
They are often found where there is a diversity-of-diversities.
They can be harvested as networks of related synergy, or, what we describe as 'synergies-of-synergies'.
In accountancy terms, synergy can be seen as a supernumerary (i.e. emergent) asset that we get by re-combining existing assets.
We also apply synergy-management in order to upgrade the fundamental nature of innovation.
Our combinatorial innovation tool is a re-invention of the genre of invention and the culture of 'disruption'.
Of course, as it more 'joined-up', it may also be more perplexing than conventional approaches.
Paul Romer, the economist, explained this nicely when he said, “...possibilities do not add up. They multiply.” (Romer, 1991).
2. SYNERGIES WITHIN FORMS
When triangles are combined together they create the strongest structures because there are synergies that align compressions, tensions, angles and edges, etc. This is what makes a triangle stronger than a square, and a tetrahedron stronger than a cube.
3. SYNERGIZING FORM AND MATERIAL
Synergies are highly abundant and are often found to be nested (or synergised) with other synergies. The bicycle is a great example. As stainless steel has an enormous tensile strength, bicycle spokes are much lighter than wooden waggon wheel spokes that are designed to work under compression. Indeed, bicycle wheels can carry up to 700 times their own weight.
- Savonius rotor (vertical) wind turbines have a low level of efficiency when compared with the more standard, hi-tech counterparts with horizontal propeller-style blades. However, when they are clustered in an appropriate pattern, their net efficiency dramatically increases (see Savonius rotor clusters can become 10x more efficient than conventional ones Aerodynamic Interactions between Pairs of Vertical-Axis Wind Turbines)
4. MANY SYNERGIES-OF-SYNERGIES
Bicycles are a clever combination of synergies. For example, bicycle spokes use the extra 'tension-strength' of stainless steel, which is far stronger than its strength 'in compression'. Each synergy may have more than one property (most stainless steels last far longer than ordinary steels because they do not rust).
6. ACHIEVING NEW QUALITIES
THE TOOL'S PURPOSE
This toolbox enables organisations to identify hidden value (e.g. opportunities or assets) that they may not have noticed. However, it broadens the accepted notion of 'value' by looking to obtain synergies from the successful combination of existing assets, rather than from the sourcing of new ones.
Our methodology includes synergy-seeking as a useful alternative to 'problem solving'. Interestingly, whereas organisations normally expect to identify problems that require solutions, this is not how Nature works. Biological evolution, for example, is a 'multiple opportunity-creating' approach in which existing resources (i.e. DNA) are recombined to create a newborn organism that is genetically unique. Organisations can learn from this strategy, as it can enable species to survive within a changing environment. The downside of the evolutionary approach is that it is a risky 'trial and error' journey that is painful for many. However, by integrating the evolutionary principle of recombination with a predictive and creative approach, one can generate a greater number of opportunities from which to choose. By contrast, the process of focusing onto a specific 'problem' can stop us from seeing other opportunities that may be close to hand.
All of the above arguments may remind us of Joseph Schumpeter's claim that all economic advancement can be seen as a recombination of the means of production. This contradicts older theories of monetary supply and demand that reflected the logic of non-renewable assets (e.g. gold or silver) and led to the 'law of decreasing returns'. As physical capital and assets are, ultimately, subject to diminishing returns, the #Synergy6 Framework toolkit tools focus more on the relations that exist between different things, rather than on the things themselves. Compared with the 'law of decreasing returns' our relational approach is more optimistic, as it enables us to foresee what Paul Romer has called the 'law of increasing returns'. When several existing assets are (re)combined and the resulting value created is greater than any of the ingredients used we call this 'synergy' (or in some cases, 'symbiosis'). They remind us that we only enhance value by combining different things, at the right time, in the right way. However, the further evolution of these processes will have huge implications for the way organisations may have to be managed in the future, especially if the world continues to welcome innovation at the expense of volatility.
Towards a Synergy-of-Synergies
By recombining several enterprises in adjacency with one another (Wood, 2007:2) it is possible to achieve many unexpected results with opportunities for further recombination. Ultimately, synergy derives from difference, irrespective of whether what is combined is generally regarded as a useful resource, or not. Indeed, some of these differences may have been identified separately as 'problems', rather than 'resources' (Evans, 1996). By finding and highlighting synergies that are of critical benefit we will encourage others to continue the process by revealing new synergies. Eventually, designers will be able to create keystone synergies that are likely to seed the creation of subsequent synergies. If successive synergies can be re-combined to create a continuing succession of new synergies, this would unfold as a cascade of steps in the transformation. Remarkably, the simple mathematics involved can also be synergistic. For example, whereas two projects will combine to deliver only one additional synergy, four interdependent projects will deliver six (Wood, 2013:2), provided each of the four will combine effectively with all of the other three (see the Quartet Toolbox. This provides an additional 'bonus' that contributes to what Fuller described as a synergy-of-synergies.
Four Key Tools
WHAT TO LOOK FOR
- a) When things just go together in the cool sense
- b) Imaginable, desirable synergies that do not yet exist.
- c) Things that are complementary to one another (i.e. known compatibilities).
- d) Relative balance of ingredients to create affinities (e.g. precise culinary compatibilities).
- e) Synergistic relations that exist, but that can produce additional benefits.
- f) Possible synergies that do not yet exist, and that may emerge from experiment.
- g) Existing synergies that derive from a combination of other synergies.
- h) New synergies that might emerge by combining existing synergies.
|Combination||Sounds simple, but things combine in very particular ways|
|Abundance||Does not necessarily mean high in 'quantity'|
|Surprise||All synergies are unpredictable from their ingredients|
|Difference||(useful synergy is seldom produced by combining similars)|
|Diversity||(A set or collection of 'differences')|
|Precision||(e.g. the best cuisine often depends on extremely subtle measures)|
|Timing||(sometimes it matters WHEN you do something)|
|Ma||Japanese word which suggests 'timing with placing')|
|Synchronicity||(When things work together with 'Ma')|
|Serendipity||(Some people seem luckier than others, but we can learn this)|
|Complexity||(it is hard to work with simple, isolated things - things get entangled)|
|Meanings||(our behaviour is governed by habits, beliefs and words in our language)|
|Permeability||(synergies migrate into moods, atmospheres, concepts & relations)|
What is it?
Why is it important?
The TEDx talk (above) explains more.
(See YouTube version)
- Download Bisociation in Keyword Mapping by Hannah Jones (2007)
- Koestler, A, (c1964, 1969). The Act of Creation. London, Pan Piper
- Poincaré, H., & Halsted, G. B., (1902-08), The Foundations of Science, numerous editions).
- Wood & Nieuwenhuijze (2005), download as Sympoiesis and Synergy
- Magee, E., (2007), Food Synergy; unleash hundreds of powerful healing food combinations to fight disease and live well, Rodale, New York
- Havil, J., (2008), Impossible?: Surprising Solutions to Counterintuitive Conundrums, Harvard University Press, Princeton, NJ
- Corning, P., (1983), The Synergism Hypothesis, Institute for the Study of Complex Systems, Palo Alto
- Schaechter, E., some notes on symbiosis in mycorrhizal fungi
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