When I do consulting work for a client, sooner or later I’m asked “what is this process you are using?” Often, this is a polite way of saying that they would rather have a nicely laid out, step by step process with clear deliverables at each step. When this happens, I stop and ask the client if they can describe to me the difference between analysis and synthesis.
The most common response is that the two words mean the same thing.
I then describe the difference between the two in the same way that my mentor, Russ Ackoff, first described the difference to me.
Analysis has three steps:
- You identify the system under study and then disaggregate the system into its component parts.
- Then, you understand each of the component parts.
- Lastly, you reaggregate the component parts into the system.
Russ always noted a couple of things at this point. First, by using a process of analysis you can understand the what and the how, but not the why. Second, in business there is always the temptation to optimize the parts and not the whole. Ackoff notes that if you use a process of analysis on ten of the best cars, and then select the best components from the collection, you won’t even be able to reaggregate the best parts into a complete car.
To understand “why” questions, you need to use a process of synthesis. Synthesis is the opposite process to analysis:
- Identify the system under study and then identify all the systems that the identified system is a part of.
- Understand the greater system of systems.
- Disaggregate the greater system back into the component systems.
Synthesis is about making sense of the whole.
At this point, the client realizes that what we’ve been doing is focusing on the why rather than the how by looking at our containing systems. The client also realizes that a linear process of analysis doesn’t work for “why” questions and processes of synthesis. I add to the discussion by sharing that in my experience I’ve found that most knowledge workers are very competent at analysis, but lack the experience and training to do synthesis. I view my value add as providing a range of experiences in understanding how to do synthesis.
A more complete description of synthesis versus analysis can be found at Google Books.
A complete list of Russ Ackoff’s books in print.
Russ Ackoff’s content is best absorbed through video.