The joy of synergy

A weekly column from Jim Taylor.

  • Jul. 20, 2011 7:00 p.m.

Our church choir disbands each summer. The other ten months, Reg Houghton and I hold down the bass section – sometimes with help, sometimes by ourselves. We’ve grown accustomed to singing together. We have differing talents, but together we sound better than either of us would alone.

During the summer, though, we sit with our families. The other Sunday, as I sang along with the rest of the congregation, I realized that my voice sounded feeble, tentative…

Then I heard Reg’s voice behind me. He was moving towards the front, preparing to make an announcement. And as soon as I heard his voice, my own singing became stronger, fuller, more confident…

That’s synergy – an interaction that creates a result greater than the sum of its parts. I believe synergy may provide the greatest satisfaction known to us humans.

Synergy obviously applies to music. A choir suddenly clicks. An orchestra matures into a living entity. A band leader strikes a chord, and everyone knows instantly where it goes from there.

But it also applies to the workplace. The feeling of accomplishment, of doing something worthwhile together, enhances staff morale far more than financial rewards.

And to team sports. The ability of a collection of individuals to anticipate each other’s actions, to build on another’s abilities, provides an emotional high that’s hard to surpass.

And to scientific research. Even to mathematics.

Synergy also defines the difference – dare I say this? – between making love and masturbating.

Indeed, civilization as we know it depends on synergy. We humans have moved from being solitary hunters to cooperative farmers to interdependent urban dwellers. Everything we do relies to some extent on someone else’s efforts.

Synergy especially enlivens discussions. One person floats an idea; others explore it, expand it, extrapolate from it…

By contrast, conversations which consist mainly of chipping away at another’s viewpoints – even if the avowed intention is to pare verbal obesity down to bare-bones truth – depress me.

Philosopher Edward de Bono (inventor of the term, “parallel thinking”) wrote a book about the Six Thinking Hats we wear in serious discussions. He argued that identifying the “hats” we wear – even metaphorically – would clarify our preconceptions and reduce our misunderstandings.

Putting on a black hat, for instance, would signal an intention to probe for flaws or weaknesses in a proposal. A red hat would mark an emotional reaction, pro or con. A white hat would indicate desire for information, without judgement. And so on.

Unfortunately, says de Bono, our society has a predilection for black hat thinking – the opposite of synergy. Meetings become exercises in frustration; conversations turn into combat; caution feels like betrayal.

Our society tends to honour competitiveness. One person wins; everyone else loses. Think of bank CEOs pocketing skyrocketing bonuses while foreclosing on employees’ mortgages. Think of individual sports like golf, tennis, boxing…

But in synergy, no one loses; everyone does better than they could do alone.

It seems far preferable to me.

Synergy doesn’t mean we all have to sing the same notes. Just that we find pleasure in singing together, in harmony.





Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author of 17 books and several thousand magazine and newspaper articles. He welcomes comments;