Synthesis: The leader’s power of cohesion
It is not for nothing that the era we are in is called the information age. Wherever you turn, there is a swarm of information, solicited and unsolicited. No one can rightly complain of insufficient information as there is an inflow of this from various sources. However, as helpful as information is to a leader, its deluge could be harmful. When a leader is bombarded with information, the decision-making process, rather than being aided, becomes hampered and the leader is thrown into a state of confusion as he ventures into making the most of the available information. This is why a leader needs to have a handle on synthesizing.
Synthesizing is the ability to generate new perspectives from existing elements. Synthesis is neither a summary nor a fusion of ideas and elements from different sources but a reliance on current materials and items to produce completely new thoughts. As observed by Bob and Gregg Vanourek in their book, Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical and Enduring Organisations, synthesis takes A + B + C and then derives D, where D does not only encompass the essence of A, B and C but also adds something new that resonates deeply with the people. They also say that synthesis simplifies and explains, adding, “Those who synthesize can touch people deeply. Synthesis is a powerful and essential leadership skill.”
A leader’s success is often hinged on his ability to mobilize his people towards achieving a specified goal. More often than not team members hold different views about the same matter and are motivated to hold such views by different factors. So, outright rejection of such views may precipitate cracks in the team as team members may wonder why their views are turned down and may not be willing to give their all to the preferred idea. Therefore, the onus is on the leader to integrate the views of the team members while not jettisoning his own. Thus, it is important that the leader should possess the ability to synthesize. According to Howard Gardner, who wrote The Five Minds of the Future, the synthesizing leader takes information from disparate sources, understands and evaluates that information objectively, and puts it together in ways that make sense to the synthesizer and also to other persons. So, for a leader who wants to build a cohesive team, possessing the synthesizing skill is sine qua non.
Synthesis is a skill that can be developed. Here are ways of developing the skill.
A synthesizer does not take an idea lock, stock and barrel, he has to consider such idea with a view to separating the shaft from the grain. To effectively do this, he needs to be analytical in his thinking. Analytical thinking is the ability to take apart a load of complex information to extract the hidden gems so as to be able to arrive at a conclusion or proffer a solution. To analyze is to consider something through different points of view with the aim of establishing a cause and an effect. It is also the ability to be impersonal in the deconstruction process. To make a success of analytical reasoning, personal biases have to be interred to ensure that the best decision is reached.
Analytical thinking requires asking some basic questions to get the import of a piece of information. The first is what is the kernel or the heart of this information? In other words what is this information about? What is its essence?
The second question: Is it important to us? Do we need it? If it is important, why is it important? What changes will it engender? Is there anything already in the system that is doing or offering exactly what this promises?
The third question is ‘How do we make use of this information? Is it something that could be deployed immediately or something that has to wait till a later date?’
Once these questions are answered one way or the other, it becomes easy to synthesize the information.
Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally about what to do or what to believe. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking. It is a way of thinking in which one doesn’t simply accept all arguments and conclusions as presented but having an attitude involving questioning such arguments and conclusions. It requires wanting to see what evidence is involved to support a particular argument or conclusion.
A critical thinker raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely. He also gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively and comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards.
To become a synthesizer one needs to have the integrative thinking ability. Although the concept of integrative thinking was first used by Graham Douglas in 1986, it is Roger Martin, former Dean of the Rotman School of Management at The University of Toronto, who has popularized it and even developed a theory on it. According to Martin, integrative thinking is the ability to constructively face the tensions of opposing models, and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new model that contains elements of the individual models, but is superior to each.
Integrative thinking is making the best of two opposing ideas without losing the benefit of either. It is the ability to turn two opposing ideas into the raw material for producing a new one. Integrative thinking is the foundation for synthesizing. The difference between the two is that while integrative thinking is limited to two ideas, synthesis has no such restrictions.
Martin further states that “Integrative thinkers build models rather than choose between them. Their models include consideration of numerous variables not just a subset of the above. Their models capture the complicated, multi-faceted and multidirectional causal relationships between the key variables in any problem. Integrative thinkers consider the problem as a whole, rather than breaking it down and farming out the parts. Finally, they creatively resolve tensions without making costly trade-offs, turning challenges into opportunities.”
Becoming an integrative thinker requires moving away from the conventional thinking of simplifying or reducing the complexity of the cognitive process to reach a resolution as quickly and efficiently as possible into viewing problems in a more holistic manner. This attitude helps the integrative thinker to discover solutions that elude the conventional thinker.
To properly synthesize, the leader must have the big picture in focus at all times. The leader should always guard against allowing himself to be hemmed in by a narrow perspective. In an organization, every sectional head will be motivated by his parochial interests. This will determine his views and position on a number of matters. He will want to push his views just for the benefit of his section. But the overall leader cannot afford to take that route, he must always bear in mind the big picture and doing this will help him to bring all sections and segments of the organization into focus while taking his decisions. So, rather than take a decision that will favour just a section, a synthesizing leader, with the aid of the big picture, is able to take a decision that will not be sectional but all-encompassing.
Recourse to the vision
One of the major side effects of information overload is the temptation to lose sight of the vision. In the information age, things change almost at the speed of light and the leader is almost always pushed to the wall about having to change his focus every time. But those who change the vision of their organization all the time are often left behind by those who are focused. To synthesize effectively, a leader must work in line with the vision of his organization. Adherence to the vision is a critical factor in the sustainability of an organization. Those who want to practise synthesis must not lose focus of the vision.
When a leader develops his synthesizing skills, not only does he build a more cohesive team, he also gets more value from those he leads.