“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
-Leonardo Da Vinci
Leaders today are swamped with information 24/7. The complexity can be overwhelming. Yet leaders are supposed to rally colleagues with insightful analyses of problems and plans for how to succeed.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. spoke about the importance of getting to the “simplicity on the other side of complexity.” Such simplicity accelerates speed and drives change.
How can leaders today get to that simplicity? This challenge is one of synthesis.
Synthesis creatively fuses multiple elements, often from different areas, into something new and memorable.
Synthesis is not a summary. Synthesis takes A + B + C, and then derives D, where D encompasses the essence of A, B, and C but also adds something new that resonates deeply with people. O.J Simpson’s attorney, Johnny Cochran, synthesized a complex trial with the infamous words to the jury, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.
Synthesis simplifies and explains. Those who synthesize can touch people deeply. Synthesis is a powerful and essential leadership skill.
At Gettysburg during the Civil War, politician and educator Edward Everett spoke for over two hours during his long-winded “oration.” People were confused by the savage war, so explaining the necessity and context was important, but hours of pontificating was not what the people needed.
President Abraham Lincoln then nailed it in about two minutes in his Gettysburg Address with phrases like, “we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain,” and “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
In a February 2006 Harvard Business Review article, psychologist Howard Gardner said, “The ability to decide what information to heed, what to ignore, and how to organize and communicate that which we judge to be important is becoming a core competency for those living in the developed world.”
Synthesis is not something innate in a gifted few. Synthesis is a learned skill that you can master, yet there are few insights into how leaders can synthesize.
Here we list seven steps you can learn to be able to synthesize effectively as a leader:
- Immersion. To synthesize, you must dive into all that messy complexity, listening and reading voraciously to understand deeply.
- Sorting. Then you’ll have to sort information, determining what is relevant, discarding non-credible data, and digging under symptoms to get to root causes.
- Patterns. You can then group the relevant information into patterns.
- Stepping Back. Next you step back and look at the patterns. Is there a logical or compelling theme that seems to dominate?
- Drafting. Then you draft a clear, simple, powerful message that captures the emergent theme. A summary sound bite or tagline is useful. Winston Churchill synthesized the noble courage of the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain, forcing Germany to cancel its planned invasion, with, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
- Feedback. Now try your draft out on knowledgeable and trusted colleagues who have the courage to tell you the truth. You may have to loop back several times between these steps to get the final version.
- Present. Finally, you present the synthesis to wider audiences, adjusting as you listen and learn.
The best way to learn to synthesize is to practice all of these steps. Take real issues from your work, or in the news, and follow the steps above. Begin with issues that are not too complex and work your way up from there.
Core Concept: Synthesis is a powerful leadership skill that anyone can learn with practice.
Bob and Gregg Vanourek, father and son, are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards.