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The Sixth of the Seven Habits of Effective People: Synergy

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Sid Kemp is a business consultant and author of 10 books on project management and business success.

The solo violinist and the orchestra create harmony and contrast: synergy.

The solo violinist and the orchestra create harmony and contrast: synergy.

What Is Synergy, and Why Is It Necessary for Real Success in Business?

What the heck is synergy?

It is the wonderful things that can be done by a group that cannot be done alone.

Alone, a man or a woman can live, at most, about a hundred years. Together, men and women create a species that lives for millions of years.

A person, alone, can sing. A person with a musical instrument can drum, play flute, or play the harp and create harmony in so many ways. A group of people with voices and musical instruments can form a choir, a symphony orchestra, or a rock band. They can follow a score or jazz it up with improvisation.

A writer, alone, can write a novel. But he needs readers. And if a producer, a director, a cast and crew come along, the novel can become a movie.

All great human achievements come about through synergy, or, to be more precise, positive synergy.

Positive and Negative Synergy

Above, I evoked the wonders of positive synergy.

But there is also negative synergy. Two angry men get into a fistfight. When we get together in groups and allow the government to direct our thinking, those two angry men can launch a war that kills millions. And there are many other kinds of cultural and systemic oppression, prejudice, and hatred that last for decades, centuries, millennia.

And this also works on a smaller scale. A happy marriage is a wonderful thing. A miserable marriage can feel like an inescapable trap. A good business partnership flourishes. Many business efforts fall into a mess, dragging good people and good talent with them.

As the late Stephen Covey discusses in Habit 6 of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, positive synergy is what it is all about, but it is incredibly difficult to achieve and sustain. Negative synergy is what we are stuck with when we try for positive, and it doesn't work.

What's the trap? And how do we get unstuck?

An Example of Synergy in Practice

A great example of synergy was Peter Jackson's production of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. He made three movies in 15 months with a team of about 350 people. Everyone contributed tremendous creativity and passion.

Two artists who had spent their lives drawing and painting images of Tolkien's Middle Earth designed the sets. Dozens of others turned those images into real full-sized sets, huge miniatures for filming, and computer-generated (CG) graphics.

There was a team for costume design and creation. There was even one guy who spent three years making chain mail for orcs (goblins) out of slices of rubber hose. He wore the fingerprints off his fingers, manually linking the loops together to build hundreds of suits of rubber chain mail.

Every single aspect of the movie was approved by Peter Jackson at every stage. For example, he suggested the design of the Nazgul, a Pterodactyl-like evil flying monster. An artist made drawings; Jackson made suggestions; the artist made changes; Jackson approved the drawings. A modeler worked the drawings into 3D models, and Jackson again suggested, allowed revision, and approved. Then the CG team took over, using computers to bring the Nazgul to life. And Peter Jackson approved the final product.

Each department had an "approved by Peter Jackson" rubber stamp. He could move quickly from team to team, getting people started, leaving them alone to be creative, approving their work, and leaving them alone again.

The production team for The Lord of the Rings was more than a well-oiled machine. It was creative and productive people at their best, working long hours for 15 months to translate the most inspiring literature of the 20th century into the first great movies of the 21st.

Watch this behind-the-scenes movie of Peter Jackson's prequel to The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, for a feeling of how the cast and crew live and work together.

Energy and Synergy

The Power Inherent in Synergy

We really begin to understand the 7 Habits when we think about how much energy we have in life and how much energy we put into what we do.

How much life energy goes into creating a great symphony orchestra, maintaining it for a century, and creating, playing, and enjoying all that music? How much joyful power is there?

How much life energy goes into creating, selling, and using addictive drugs? How much waste of human life is there?

Positive synergy is what we get when parts work together as a whole. Picture an 18-wheeler carrying 50,000 pounds of goods across the country.

Negative synergy is what happens when the same parts don't work well together. Imagine the truck engine seizing, the truck jackknifing, people dying.

There are two key points here:

  • The more parts to the system, the more ways it can go wrong. A truck requires more precision engineering and better driving than a car.
  • The more energy in a system, the worse damage when it does go wrong. When a truck flips over, there's a lot more destruction than when a car loses control.

And how much the more so if we think about an airplane. How much more capability for wonder. How much easier - and more disastrous - if it crashes.

What Prevents Synergy

The damage is not just in accidents. As people, we tend to trap ourselves in unhealthy habits, damaging relationships, and destructive social patterns. Then the excess energy of the system hurts people and goes on hurting and hurting. Some of the hurting shows up as obvious destruction, such as the million or so people who die each year in car crashes worldwide. Some of it shows up more subtly, in the lost creativity and joy, for example, for both men and women, through sexual stereotyping and the limiting of human potential based on bias and prejudice.

Take a look around us: How easy it is to do harm. How challenging it is to create lasting beauty and wonder, health, joy, and peace.

But we can.

The Gift and Challenge of Synergy (With Simon & Garfunkel as an Example)

For me, Simon & Garfunkel is an excellent example of positive synergy, including how difficult it is to do. Each of them, alone, is an excellent musician. But when they work together, something much greater comes into being. Listen to Scarborough Fair on YouTube and consider these points of synergy:

  • Together, two voices produce a harmony that you don't get from one. But watch the video closely. Note how deeply concentrated each of them is, shaping each sound with his mouth, listening to the other, tuning into the song. Harmony takes work!
  • This version, Scarborough Fair/Canticle, blends two songs to create a whole new message.
  • It is hard to achieve synergy between two masters. They broke up twice because they couldn't agree on all the details of the music they wanted to produce.
  • When it works, it changes the world. Two of Simon & Garfunkel's reunion concerts, including the one in Central Park above, were two of the ten largest musical concerts of all time. And many of their songs, like The Sound of Silence, inspired the transformational thinking of the 1960s, well worth remembering now.

Creating synergy is almost as difficult as "finding me an acre of land . . . between salt water and the sea strand" making "a cambric shirt . . . with no seam or needlework" but it's worth the effort. We yearn for synergy like we yearn for true love. In fact, true love is the ultimate in positive synergy.

Positive or Negative Synergy: What Makes the Difference?

If you've come with me this far in looking at being an effective person through The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, you see how incredibly valuable it would be if we could create positive synergy and not negative synergy.

How do we do it?

The answer is going to sound incredibly simple. We can do it, but not directly. Synergy is a gift, a result, of living the other 6 habits. Positive synergy arises when we live the other 6 of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. The 7 Habits are the machinery of effectiveness, and positive synergy is the gift of a well-run machine. But when that machine or system includes human gifts, it is so much more than a machine. All great humanitarian and artistic ventures and adventures arise from the gift of people working in synergy.

To create positive synergy, we must:

  • Live the 7 Habits as consistently as we can.
  • Be honest about our weaknesses, and work to get better.
  • Say "no" to anything that is not true synergy, that is, stick to the "no deal" of win/win or no deal.

I picture myself as a race car driver. I want to race, but only with an excellent pit crew in a safe, well-tuned machine. I want the power of creative success with the minimum risk of an accident.

Negative synergy is the result of a poorly run machine, system, or relationship. When we falter in any one of the other six habits, our positive synergy comes crashing down. See Table #1 for an example in a small business and Table #2 for an example in a marriage.

Table #1: Business Habit Failures Leading to Synergy Failures

A failure in any one of the 7 Habits creates a failure of synergy, vastly reducing the value of a business.

Positive HabitsFailing Business Habits

1 Proactivity

Reactivity, hostility, micromanagement, negative busienss culture.

2 End in Mind

Conflict about goals, wasted work

3 First Things First

Bureaucratic slowdowns

4 Win-Win

Making money but ripping off customers

5 Seek to Understand

Sloppy management fixes leave problems in place

7 Self-Renewal

Burn out people's talent, also equipment failure and safety problems.

Table #2: Marriage Habit Failures Leading to Synergy Failures

Sadly, how many marriages look like this, rather than the vision of joy we all have in getting married!

Positive HabitsMarriage Failure Habits

1 Proactivity

Giving up, not trying to make it work, blaming each other

2 End in Mind

Not planning for success, and life's events take you down

3 First Things First

Getting overwhelmed and losing the joy

4 Win-Win

Fighting, blaming, avoiding, arguing

5 Seek to Understand

No ability to work out problems - divorce

7 Self-Renewal

Exhaustion, misery, all the joy is gone

All 7 Habits: A Lot to Do!

Of course, living all 7 Habits to achieve and maintain synergy only sounds simple if you've studied each of them in depth, and put each of them into practice, then you've disassembled your entire life and rebuilt your entire life from the inside out.

So, in a way, living the 7 Habits is like stripping down an old car and turning it into a classic race car. Only you're the car!

Habit change is a process of awareness, diagnosis, and repair.

What makes it so hard?

Well, wouldn't it be hard to repair a classic race car while you're driving it down the road?

Truly learning the 7 Habits takes years. I've been at it for 17 years, and I'm still growing with it. Indeed, I think it is the journey of a lifetime.

How do we keep improving our habits, developing our character, and transforming ourselves while making life work day-to-day?

That's what Habit 7: Self-renewal, is all about.

Jazz improvisation is a whole different world of synergy. Look at how the musicians tune into - and play off of - one another!

Jazz improvisation is a whole different world of synergy. Look at how the musicians tune into - and play off of - one another!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


big daddy on May 12, 2016:


Sid Kemp (author) from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on September 24, 2012:

Clearly, the more independent intelligences operating in a system, the more complex the system, and the harder to create and maintain positive synergy. This is actually addressed in the field of project management. Uniting creativity, healing, and project management seems to be what my life is all about.

visionandfocus from North York, Canada on September 21, 2012:

We all are on different life-paths and there's no pushing or shoving or holding each other back. If our lives happen to cross at a time when we're at a similar stage of growth, then wonderful synergistic things could happen. Great bands come to mind, or marriages, but once you get to bigger enterprises, there's more chance for things to fall apart. Perhaps size and complexity really are inversely related to the possibility of synergy. Think about governments, for instance. *wry smile*

Sid Kemp (author) from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on July 27, 2012:

Yes, McGilwriter, you are so right. John Gardner said that literature and art are efforts to share our own dreams so that they become the dreams of others. But, even is we are ready to do that, how many others are really ready to dream their own dreams, own their own dreams, and also receive ours?

McGilwriter from Florida on July 26, 2012:

Synergy is a wonderful but elusive thing. It's so easy to work alone. You know what you want and you know your final out come. You know what quality you expect, and the road to get there. When others enter your world, they have to be taught and guided to learn your vision! Communicating to others your vision is where synergy breaks down for so many people!