Monday, 2 August 2010

Synthetic thinking vs. Analytic thinking - or "How to have fruitful conversations in public"

When we speak and listen in a group meeting, or medium sized group such as a workshop course, or even when we speak and listen in a large conference room together with several hundred other people... WHERE do the sentences that we speak to each other and those we hear others say, where do those sentences go?

At first glance this question may seem unnecessary and the answer obvious. The sentences uttered by others come “out of their minds” and go “into the minds” of the other people at the meeting or event. Possibly those thoughts and ideas also go into the notebooks of anyone who is taking notes. At some meetings, of course, we have someone "taking minutes", and that person sends out afterwards a blow-by-blow report of exactly what was said and sometimes by whom it was said.

On an individual level we should add that there is some sort of process of assimilation that happens as the thoughts of others mix with our own thoughts. And although we may remember specific things said by specific people, we may often be more interested in what comes out of a discussion by way of an individual SYNTHESIS of what I myself gleaned from the contribution of others, and what I am able to mix that with from my own experience, knowledge and wisdom.

What I am calling “Synthesis” here we could say is the process of putting things together by combining the parts that go to make those things up. A + B + C + D => RESULT. A,B,C,D are the pieces that are being brought together to produce a particular product or result. A,B,C and D are perhaps ideas. And when we bring those ideas together we come up with an idea that transcends any of these four parts that went to make it up. This bringing together could be called a process of Synthesis. And in the realm of thoughts and ideas, we could perhaps describe an analogous process to real-world synthesis, whereby a number of ideas are brought together to synthesize an idea whose whole is in some sense greater that simply the sum of its parts. By combining the part ideas we come up with something that we didn't have when those part ideas were being kept separately. This could be thought of as analogous to a real world example wherein we bring together 4 wheels, an engine and a chassis and make a car. The parts that go to make up the car don’t provide us with a usable car UNTIL WE PUT THEM TOGETHER. The whole can be functionally greater than the sum of the parts.

Synthesis as I am describing it here is often contrasted with Analysis. Analysis can be thought of as the process of conceptually breaking something down into its constituent parts. In this sense, analysis could be thought of as the opposite of synthesis. Traditional computer mind-mapping tools which start from a central main idea and allow a user to add successively thinner branches as they move outwards from that central idea (and typically also move down a hierarchy) are very good at Analysis and Analytic thinking of this kind. However they are not so good at Synthetic thinking, because the process of Synthetic thinking is more a matter of starting at the extremities and moving in to the centre – in a way this can be thought of as the opposite of starting at the centre and moving outwards towards the extremities. So we might, if we wanted to, think of Synthesis as being the opposite of Analysis. Synthesis allows us to CONSTRUCT a whole something out of its parts. Analysis allows us to conceptually BREAK DOWN a whole something into the parts that it could be made of.

Obviously both Analysis and Synthesis are useful. Certainly we want to have both of these aspects available to us, not only one or the other. They are particularly useful when you apply the one of these that is most appropriate to the part of a developmental cycle that you are currently in. Entrepreneurship, Innovation and Breakthrough (which tend to start out a development cycle) we could say are more a matter of Synthesis. Accountancy, Management and “Business as Usual” (which come later on in a development cycle) are more a matter of Analysis. Figuring out what went wrong is likely to be a matter of Analysis. Figuring out how we can make things better in the future is more likely to be a matter of Synthesis. Diagnosis is a matter of Analysis. Treatment is a matter of Synthesis. Problem is a matter of Analysis. Solution is a matter of Synthesis. Measurement is a matter of Analysis. Creativity is a matter of Synthesis.

In a conference situation, or workshop, or even a smaller group meeting, we may be in a situation where we have simply come to listen to a presentation from a single speaker or a series of speakers. We could characterize such situations as being MONOLOGUES. Obviously there are many people listening, but there is NOT VERY MUCH INTERACTION. There is mostly only one speaker. The content that gets delivered has for the most part been worked out before hand and is simply “presented”. There may be questions at the end or between sections of the delivery, but the outcome of such questions tends to just be more imparting of the knowledge and experience of the conference speaker. Nothing new is being created in the public realm (although it may be being created privately in the experience of each conference delegate - and this may subsequently end up in the public realm). The delegates may receive a great insight that they didn’t have before and may indeed be privately Synthesizing something out of that by virtue of their own perspectives and knowledge, but the conference as a whole does not get the benefit of that Synthesis at least not during the time over which the conference is running.

However there are some conferences these days where a more creative approach is taken, and certainly in our more medium sized workshop situations and smaller group meetings it is much more commonly the case that there is more opportunity for contributions from multiple participants and a process that involves much more INTERACTION. These kinds of scenarios could be characterized as DIALOGUES, and set in contrast to the more monologue situation discussed in the previous paragraph.

The more opportunity for dialogue that a meeting of minds affords, the more likely we can expect there to be a Synthesis of new ideas. The melding of ideas that were previously being kept separate, and the cross-fertilization that this affords, allows for the Synthesis of SOMETHING NEW. Meetings of this sort tend to be exciting if not thrilling for conference delegates. There is a sense that “anything might happen”; that “something is really happening here”. Such events as these tend to leave their mark on history. Whole new approaches to human problems are born at such events. Unprecedented outcomes occur. Life is made better.

However, for all the advantages that dialogue-type events provide, the management of conversation at events of this second type is not without its difficulties. Whereas the individual synthesis that a conference delegate may be developing “in their own mind” in the process of listening to the ideas of a conference speaker may be fairly easy to manage and discern (possibly depending on the adequacy of the individual in question), in the case of an event where multiple speakers are encouraged to engage in a dialogue, keeping track of what exactly is being said, what exactly is being Synthesized, becomes a real challenge.

So the question becomes: How can the management of a public Synthesis of ideas be made more productive, more fruitful, more fully democratic, more inclusive. How can we make visible what actually IS BEING SYNTHESIZED when people engage in a public multi-participant conversation? How can we capture the emergent whole which a conference of delegates is together constructing out of the pieces of insight, experience, knowledge and wisdom that they are each individually able to contribute to that whole?

One possible answer to this is the inclusion into the conference environment of a highly visible and dynamically updated display of the conversation as it unfolds. Various pieces of software are available which allow for the capture and display of ideas as they are generated from the minds of conference delegates. Ideally such software allows these ideas to be grouped (“clustered”) in multiple alternative ways, and consequently it allows a growing clarity of what is being Synthesized in that public conversation to be presented back in real-time to conference delegates. This powerful display of the unfolding of the public conversation is thereby able to feedback in real-time to the conference delegates, and thereby provide them with a deeper insight into what they are themselves developing. This in turn affords a greater opportunity to see what is being Synthesized and so engage even more deeply and completely with that Synthesis.

So whereas without such a display, we may each of us have our own “private synthesis” of the ideas being elucidated, once we have a display like this in place, it becomes a lot more viable to have a “PUBLIC SYNTHESIS” of the unfolding conversation. The ideas of the delegates, the thoughts and experience and wisdom that is being shared, can come together not merely individually in each of their minds (and differently in each of those minds) but in addition this Public Synthesis can be developed together which allows us to see the totality of what the contributions we are each making adds up to.

Related video - Divergent thinking as a pre-requisite for creativity

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