Monday, October 19, 2009

Innovation relies on synthesis

I've read several books about innovation, and am reading another which I'll review shortly here on the blog, which talk about the importance of combining disparate skills or capabilities when innovating, or holding two diametrically opposing ideas and finding the happy medium. What should be obvious is that one of the most important skills from an innovation perspective is the act and insight of synthesis.

This is a real challenge, because most people are taught to break down problems into smaller, finite pieces and solve the smaller problems. We also work as specialists, with deep understanding of our core capabilities and knowledge, but often with little insights or knowledge beyond our education or jobs. So most people don't use synthesis skills on a regular basis, and are probably prone to avoiding synthesis since synthesis requires introducing a number of new and possibly unknown factors which may simply make the problem larger and more difficult.

Well, to a certain extent that true. However, innovation often happens when we take a step back, look at the bigger picture and combine two concepts or technologies or ideas that are seemingly unrelated and create something completely new. And when you boil it all down, that is what synthesis is all about.

Synthesis happens in all phases of innovation, starting from the very beginning. We usually like to start a project by collecting trends and synthesizing or combining them to create new, alternative futures (or scenarios). Rather than simply focus on one trend, it is more interesting (and a bit more difficult) to combine three or four active trends and project them into a 7 to 10 year future. The synthesis, or combination of these trends helps create a view of the future which we can use to identify new opportunities or emerging threats.

Synthesis happens in customer research. We often will engage ethnography or voice of the customer work to discover customer needs and wants. Talking with a number of customers or observing behavior can lead to a range of insights. Synthesizing or combining these insights and seeking the common themes or threads is what is really valuable. Insights or needs from one customer is interesting, aggregating insights and understanding them from a range of customers is valuable.

It's not at all unusual to use synthesis as a method to generate ideas. We can ask ourselves what would happen if we combined several capabilities or technologies, and what that combination would create. Clearly synthesis is a powerful tool in almost any phase of the innovation effort.

The way we generally use synthesis is almost always the same, however. Using synthesis requires a team to slow down, step back and look at a bigger picture - to gather more data and more disparate information or insights than may seem necessary. In many ways this may cloud the picture, but if your team is willing to do the extra work synthesizing the materials, or insights, then the results will be even better. Good innovators are synthesizers, and use synthesis techniques in all phases and stages of innovation. This fact is also one reason that many firms struggle to identify innovators - there are simply too few people who are good at synthesis and who use the tool regularly. As with any capability, misuse or lack of use causes the skill to atrophy. Perhaps one of the most important things you can do as an innovation leader is to find people who are comfortable with the approach or skill, or introduce it as a technique and train your teams on the approach.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 1:45 PM


Anonymous Mary Adams said...

Another great post Jeff!

I agree that some people have a talent for synthesis. But can't we help others?

It would be interesting to hear how you help groups get to synthesis.

When we tried teaching this in a seminar on strategic thinking, we did an exercise based on the poem about the blind men and the elephant then had different groups put up results of different analytical tools on white boards around the room. Tried to experience synthesis as a group.

Any suggestions for other approaches?

9:36 AM  
Blogger Paula Thornton said...

Group synthesis? Snake oil.

Synthesis is not necessarily a solo act, but it's not a group act either.

What is a group act is taking the various artifacts that result from the synthesis to consider them, experiment with them, validate and/or build upon them. Discovery is a group act.

7:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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9:25 PM  

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