by Keith D. Foote
The modern definition of synergy describes it as “an end result greater than the sum of its individual parts.” The term synergy comes from the Greek word synergia, meaning working together. The word synergy was once particularly attractive to business people, primarily because they had been told it means $2+$2 =$6. This poor understanding of synergy as a social mechanism resulted in an inept focus on monetary profits, rather than efficiency and social benefits.
When two businesses are merged, with the plan of creating a more efficient organization, the two separate cultures can, and do, become antagonistic and self-destructive to the merging process. (Their workloads were just increased, with the justification of synergy, and they were told to change their behaviors and expectations. How truly astonishing the workers might be upset.) While some savings may take place over the long haul, the goal of financial synergy is not achieved. (An “eclectic” philosophy, requiring decision-making, should be used when merging two organizations.)
This particular synergy article is a little different from the norm. It focuses on the actions of a single individual in creating “personal” synergy, and provides some modern examples of personal synergy situations. In this version, the actions of a single individual can provide multiple positive consequences. This type of synergy was discovered by Ruth Benedict in the 1930s. She made a comparison of four primitive cultures, described as “healthy,” with the behavior of four primitive cultures described as “unhealthy.” Ms. Benedict found the healthy cultures used behaviors in which a single action produced multiple positive effects, while people living in the unhealthy cultures were highly individualistic and saw others as competitors. The behaviors of individuals in the unhealthy cultures often caused problems for the local community.
There is very little information available about Ruth Benedict’s observations of Personal Synergy. Margaret Meade, a close, long time friend of Benedict, believed she destroyed her own research. One theory suggests she destroyed it rather than let it be taken over by a few large corporations who had made donations to Columbia University. Times have changed, and there are a number of small internet organizations and start up businesses who could benefit from Personal Synergy in the work place. It will help them to be a little more nimble, a wee bit more functional, and help to provide a positive work experience for the staff. With the transparency created by the internet, it is the author’s sincerest hope the potential for abuse has been countered.
Examples of modern day Personal Synergy include the “free” table Grandma Miller has set up in front of the the old farmhouse, the free tai chi class, the take one leave/leave one book box libraries that have popped up in various neighborhoods around the United States, and Hadoop, an open source software program for processing Big Data. The Internet has opened up a near infinite number of ways to create Personal Synergy. (People with an interest in physics should check out the Ultra-Space Field Theory.)
Is Personal Synergy Self-Serving?
Personal Synergy is part self-serving behavior and part generosity. It provides a benefit for both the giver, and the “receivers” within the community. Grandma Miller was getting rid of stuff she no longer needed. But then friends, relatives, and “others” started leaving items on the “free” table that they no longer needed. And people who wanted these items, took them. After a year, the table became a tradition. A primitive form of recycling had developed. Grandma Miller originally got rid of unwanted goods, but now gets kudos and thanks from the local community.
Free tai chi classes are an interesting phenomena. Certainly, they are a benefit to the students. The classes provide both health benefits and an opportunity to socialize. The instructor gains both a sense of satisfaction and thanks from the students, plus the benefits of a daily workout.
The take one/leave one libraries provide another example of synergistic behavior, allowing people to get rid of a book they have already read in exchange for a new one. The person who installs the miniature library shares those advantages, plus gets kudos and compliments (also known as goodwill) from the community, and has to walk a minimal distance for a free new book. It is essentially a variation on Grandma Miller’s “free” table.
Hadoop also provides a recent example of synergistic behavior. It started as a web search engine named Nutch, and was the open-source creation of Doug Cutting and Mike Cafarella. (Doug and Mike worked as a team, but for our purposes, they will be viewed as two individuals developing a system capable of helping thousands of people, for free.) They wanted faster web search results, and believed distributing data and calculations across different computers, so multiple tasks could be accomplished simultaneously, could accomplish this goal. In 2006, Doug was hired by Yahoo, and in 2008, Yahoo released Hadoop (the evolved version of Nutch) as an open-source design. Hadoop’s technologies are now managed by the Apache Software Foundation (ASF), an open-source, nonprofit, global community for software contributors and developers.
Doug and Mike have helped literally thousands of small businesses. Did they enjoy spending long hours developing a piece of software? Do mountain climbers “enjoy” the challenge of climbing mountains? No. They enjoy a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Nor has this extreme effort at generosity hurt their careers. In the process of creating a faster search engine and data processor, in an open-source forum, they have seriously helped their careers. Creating Nutch, followed by Hadoop, has been a win-win situation for everyone (except maybe those who see themselves as the competition.)
Often, Personal Synergy develops over time, and is the result an impulse, rather than a preplanned event. Occasionally it happens by accident, but “someone” notices. (Developing the habit of recognizing human synergy when it is observed or experienced can provide some remarkably useful personal advantages.) Grandma Miller’s “free” table had only been planned as a one or two day event.
Personal Synergy Is Not For The Selfish
In case no one has noticed, Personal Synergy involves people getting something for free (it also requires little or no energy, to repeat or sustain the synergistic situation). Synergistic behavior often starts out as a good intention, and evolves from there. There is an element of generosity in Personal Synergy. Without generosity, an action becomes completely self-serving and lacks multiple positive effects for the community. Selfish people do not share.
Unlike the corporate version of synergy (which has all of the illusionary profits going to the owners), Personal Synergy is a win-win situation. The community and the individual both benefit from the action of the individual. Personal Synergy is quite different from a business profiting at the expense of its staff. A business attempting to “maximize the efficiency of its employees” is probably not synergistic. This approach traditionally stems from a philosophy of maximizing profits, and the employees are the unfeeling “machines” making those profits possible.
Start ups and small businesses will have a much easier time integrating Personal Synergy into the workplace. Large corporations lack the flexibility and initiative to integrate Personal Synergy behaviors into their culture. Their focus is on maintaining the status quo and maximizing their profits.
Synergy and Friendship
Synergistic behavior can lay the foundation for a friendship and friendship is remarkably synergistic. Friendship doesn’t get much discussion in our modern culture, but a person with friends has a much richer quality of life than someone lacking friends. Consider Benedict’s observation that non-synergistic (unhealthy) cultures are competitive. Deceit and manipulation were quite common in these unhealthy cultures, as was theft. These are not the characteristics that support friendship. Broken promises and broken expectations have the effect of making people angry and distrustful. However, honesty and sharing (as in shared work, or a shared meal) leads to bonding, and can allow a potential friendship to form. (In our own culture, the question becomes “Which is more important, winning and maximized profits, or experiencing friendships and shared achievements?”)
America and Synergy
Within the context of this paragraph, the topic has shifted to “Social” Synergy. The American culture supports a number of synergistic institutions. Libraries, bus systems, and the post office are three good examples. Unfortunately, the American culture, as a whole, seems to be moving in the direction of competition and nonsynergistic behavior using the rationalization of rugged individualism. Corporations, which by nature have no ethics, advertise with a combination of deceit and psychological manipulation. Some people accept this behavior as permission to be deceitful, and rationalize it as the path to “success.”
Consider the two presidential candidates of 2016. Both candidates have expressed extreme self-centered behavior, and seemed completely comfortable in lying to the American public (Hillary Clinton had her public and private face, and Donald Trump said whatever popped into his head, whether it jived with reality or not). Neither candidate supported a philosophy of transparency, unless they were talking about the other candidate. Both have made significant amounts of money in very questionable ways. Generally speaking, this kind of behavior is not considered admirable. From a big picture perspective, the most appropriate response in countering this kind behavior is by– Not supporting this kind of behavior!! And by promoting transparency, behaving as honest, responsible adults, and to support synergy where we find it. In other words, to set the example.