TEAM SYNTEGRITY: CUSTOMISING FOR DIFFERENT GROUPS
Syntegration is a group process that enables people with a common interest to approach requisite variety in their deliberations. It combines informational and social activities in which both explicit and tacit knowledge is shared. People enjoy the opportunity to work in teams, to advise, and to observe as they play out unique but equivalent roles in a highly structured but non-hierarchical process.
Syntegration is described in detail elsewhere (Beer, 1994, Leonard, 1996, Truss, Cullen and Leonard, 2000). These, especially Beer’s Beyond Dispute, describe the many disciplines that form the foundation of this process. They include mathematics; especially geometry and graph theory, psychology and neurophysiology; communication theory, and, of course, cybernetics. In the first several experiments, people received extensive explanations about the process but it was soon found that even theoreticians were far more interested in going for a ride in the new car than in knowing the principles behind its engine. Since then, although the book and some articles are available, written descriptions at events have been limited to a few explanatory pages in the notebooks. Explanations have been held to less than an hour with a short introduction and five or ten minutes of directions at the beginning of each stage. It has worked well for participants to begin with a minimum briefing. Syntegration is, as Stafford put it, ‘easier done than said’. The more difficult question is how to advise sponsors who do are not aware of the full background concerning what alterations can and cannot be introduced and how much a suggested change would compromise the outcome. It is helpful if they discuss some of the distinctions that would help them make decisions about how to frame the use of a group process in the context of their purposes.
A Syntegration begins with the decision to bring people together to discuss a complex issue that requires multiple perspectives. A range of participants is selected or invited and an opening question is drafted to be the focus of their conversations. After registration and perhaps a client briefing and introductions, participants write their individual Statements of Importance on sticky notes and post them on a wall. When forty or so have been posted, people may begin clustering similar ones. Typically each individual drafts between five and ten of these statements. These should be provocative as they form the raw material for subsequent discussions in the Problem Jostle stage. This is just as it sounds – a set of informal conversations that ebb and flow around the ideas that were posted and the further ideas that arise. As these discussions mature, they are summarized on a flip chart as Aggregated Statements of Importance. If enough people agree a subject warrants further exploration, it goes on to the next stage where the twelve topics are selected. These will be the focus of three iterations of team meetings, called the Outcome Resolve, for the rest of the event.
The twelve topics are mapped onto the vertices of the regular solid of the icosahedron with its twenty triangular sides. Each of the thirty participants assumes a unique role as an edge connecting the two vertices where their topics are located. In addition to designating team memberships, each edge also carries an assignment to act as a critic of two other teams. The five critics of each team are not opponents but function more as independent voices or devil’s advocates. They are allotted time to comment in each meeting to provide other perspectives on the content or the dynamics of the team’s deliberations. The beauty of the geometry is that it structures the conversations so that every participant will connect with directly with eight other topics through their fellow team members as well as indirectly to the other topics. It is this feature that enables ideas that arise in one setting and to reverberate throughout the structure and the meeting. At the end of each meeting, the team’s facilitator will write up the report that the team wants to make about their session to the rest of the group. These will be typed out and posted so that everyone has a chance to read and comment on them.
The integration of thirty different points of view on twelve topics and the potential synergy that the sharing of information may generate can be hugely beneficial. Common ground may be, and often is, found; but at a minimum it is very unlikely that any important issues will surprise the group later unless the participants have been chosen from much too narrow a base.
Syntegration is one of a number of group processes including Future Search (Weisbord), Participatory Strategic Planning (ICA) and Open Space Technology (Owen) that can be used for any topic by any type of group. A number of other processes including Citizens’ Juries and Action Planning are specifically designed for circumstances where there is a need for both citizen and governmental involvement. These and another fifteen group processes are described in Participation Works: 21 techniques for community participation in the 21st Century edited and published by the New Economics Foundation. Despite substantial evidence that these processes are effective, their use is nowhere near as widespread as it should be.
The need is certainly there. Newspapers are full of examples of crises and surprises that buffet businesses, governments and public services due to poor coordination and a lack of basic information about the risks attached to their activities and the concerns of their stakeholders. Many are slow to respond when things start to go wrong. Too often, their initial reactions are characterized by litigation, evasion, oversimplification and spin doctoring. None of these acknowledges, never mind addresses, the complexity of the actual circumstances.
When issues involve the public, they are often taken to court, or debated between the public and overlapping jurisdictions of government. As I write, five issues are in today’s news including:
. More than 25% of the estimated population of special needs children in the Province of Ontario are waiting for assessment and placement. Class action suits are pending in court, petitions have been filed with the Human Rights Commission, and the Office of the Ombudsman is preparing an audit report. Part of the problem is that assessments and services are covered separately by two departments: Health and Education.
. There is pressure from property developers to build on the moraine that forms the watershed for Toronto and nearby municipalities. There are public health, environmental and commercial considerations that have national implications but the issue is being debated between regional governments with possible provincial involvement.
. A local ratepayers group is concerned about a nuclear waste storage facility proposed near their community. The questions are before the court although its remit is to deal with formal and procedural issues rather than the substantive ones that concern the people.
. The owners of an apartment complex of nearly a thousand units have approached City Council about approval to convert them to condominiums, with an appeal to the Provincial Municipal Board possible if they are turned down. Some residents and politicians are opposed because Toronto’s vacancy rate is .06% and few new apartments are being built because of an unfavorable tax structure.
. A regional government is trying to impose a sewage treatment pipe with four times the capacity needed to serve the current population in an area currently zoned for no-growth.
It is being contested by the City Council.
All of these situations would benefit from using a participatory process to identify and understand the constraints and concerns of all the stakeholders but there is no evidence so far that any such steps are contemplated. Court cases and intergovernmental wrangling can be very time consuming and frequently do not have the requisite variety to look at the whole picture. The private and non-governmental sectors are often in similar situations.
Sometimes, organizations rely on focus groups, surveys and polls; but these methods are most useful when the range of possibilities has already been narrowed down sufficiently to be covered in a couple of hours of discussion or a few pages of questions. Why do so many organizations fail to appreciate the problem? There is a huge mismatch between the need for requisite variety in dialogue among constituents, customers, employees and clients and the means by which it is addressed. Questions about the mismatch are being asked more and more frequently, in different forms, when things have gone badly wrong or when opportunities have been allowed to slip away. Usually by then there is little that can be done, except to look for someone to blame.
Obviously, there are barriers to using group processes. Some are attitudinal, some practical and some have to do with the culture of the group or the structure for making decisions. These barriers are a factor in deciding whether or not to use Syntegration or any group process.
The first barrier is that the decision-makers involved cannot believe that only their own voices are legitimate. One executive recently vetoed the idea of a Syntegration because he didn’t want to establish a precedent of listening to employees. Although the divine right of kings has gone out of style, autocrats still flourish in the private and public sectors who act as if their opinions, and the opinions of their intimates, are the only ones worth considering. Such accountability as they have may be limited to producing a satisfactory bottom line or delivering on the promises made to campaign contributors. Such cases are probably immune to persuasion although we might recall that autocrats are not popular with voters and advice given to directors tends to warn them of the high risk such executives pose to the organization. Autocrats and their attitudes aside, what are some of the other barriers and is possible to overcome them by customizing and adapting the process to different circumstances?
The strengths of Syntegration may be perceived as weaknesses when considering the practicalities of operating in constrained organizational environments. The primary constraints are time, money and the numbers and types of participants.
Syntegrations ideally are scheduled for five days in a residential setting. Day One is for getting to know one another, and for choosing twelve topics from the huge variety generated by the individuals and small informal groups. On Day Two, the twelve teams meet, two at a time, for sixty to ninety minutes in the first iteration of their topics. By the end of the 1st Iteration, each person will have attended two meetings as a team member, two more as a critic, and will have had the opportunity to sample up to four others as an observer. Summaries of each meeting are posted for discussion and comment, normally before the next meeting is over. The same order of meetings is repeated on Day Three and again on Day Four. On Day Five, each team presents their conclusions in a plenary session. The group uses the rest of their time to consider next steps. They may use Face Planning(a related Team Syntegrity process which allocates people to implementation planning teams on the basis of their positions on the triangles of the icosahedron), or they may use other planning methodologies.
The advantage of meeting for five days is that participants will emerge with a great deal of information about the issue and its context and about each other. They will not only learn what others think but something of how and why. If the participants are broadly representative of the people who care about the issue, major opportunities and risks will come up. Areas of miscommunication, unintentional duplication of efforts and instances of acting at cross-purposes will be identified, and, once identified, can be sorted out. Networks and bonds will be formed that will make it easier for people to share information and work together in the future to work on the desirable changes.
Taking five days to address the future is often difficult for organizations, participants or both. Events where participants come from both inside and outside the sponsoring organization can be the most difficult to arrange if people must take time off from their jobs or other responsibilities. The question becomes: “How short can an event be without losing the channel capacity to make connections and address the opening question satisfactorily?” For thirty people, a minimum of three and a half days is recommended. The informal discussions and selection of topics take half a day, usually beginning in the afternoon and continuing into the evening. The first and second iterations are held on the next two days, and the third iteration and plenary presentations take place on the final day. There is little or no time for planning and implementation, although working groups can be formed and make arrangements to meet face to face or communicate electronically. Events for thirty people have been held in three days, but that requires meetings in both the first and third iteration to be held to less than an hour which doesn’t provide much air time for the five members and five critics. This schedule sets an exhausting pace for participants. With only two intervening nights, it shortens the processing time for their ideas to gel. Social time also suffers: not only is there almost no free time in the schedule, and lunch periods must be staggered to squeeze an extra half hour for the meetings.
The detrimental effect of shorter meeting times can be reduced if there are fewer participants. Groups of twenty-four, meeting in a Shortform Syntegration, use the cube-octahedron rather than the icosahedron. This form removes six orthogonal (i.e. right-angled) struts from the icosahedron. This form is not a regular solid, since some of the icosahedron’s twenty triangular faces become squares. It does, however, retain the twelve vertices and maintain equivalent roles. Its teams are made up of four members and four critics. Eighteen person groups meet can over two or two and a half days using the same format with three members and three critics. Meetings of less than an hour allow each person time to speak but the richness and variety of the larger team is lost.
There are situations when only a day or a day and a half is available. This requires the use of a Smallform Syntegration that reduces the number of persons or topics or both. They retain the same front end to identify the topics and the three-dimensionality of the model with its role equivalency and lack of hierarchy but there is no observer time and not all retain equal numbers of team members and critics. Usually the use of the Smallform is recommended only in association with a standard Syntegration; e.g. as a follow-up to bring in additional group members.
The octahedral form, with its eight triangular faces, involves twelve struts and six vertices. Two teams with four members and two critics can meet simultaneously without observer time. This may be done as a Shortform event with participants double strutted so that they are each a member of four teams and a critic of four other teams. If a day and a half are available, it is possible to involve more participants. This spring, an octahedral event will be held for twenty-four people where two people share each strut and belong to the same two teams. They will discuss six topics concerning the implementation of the findings of a research project about the risk of gambling addiction in the elderly. There will be an hour at the end of the meeting to propose action plans.
The tetrahedral form, with four triangular faces, involves six people discussing four topics. Only one meeting is held at a time with three members and three as critics. This Smallform can be held in a single day. This format is most appropriate for work groups or task forces. The tetrahedral form may also be fully or partially double strutted.
Obviously, six or four aspects of an issue provide lower variety than twelve. As well, the smaller number of people commensurately reduces the number of perspectives. If the issue is not too broad or multifaceted it is still possible to have an effective meeting. The three-dimensional forms still offer a means to link topics in enough ways so that issues are triangulated and simple polarities avoided.
With potential sponsors, the question is how much time is needed to do justice to the questions they need to address? It may be possible to postpone the event until sufficient time can be made available. Sometimes, there is a relatively small window within which to consider alternatives, especially if there have already been delays in making decisions. In those cases, Smallform events have been custom designed for the situation.
There have also been successful experiments where all or part of the front end of the process has been held on line. These groups then continue according to the usual protocol when they meet face to face, preferably for the standard three days. This can provide for a larger group of people to participate in suggesting topics for the agenda. This may also be done for a standard event so that people who cannot attend are still able to submit Statements of Importance for consideration.
For many groups and individuals cost is a problem. Various means of holding costs down may be employed but they take their toll. Unfortunately, the need for an effective event is not necessarily proportional to the amount of resources needed to mount it.
For most organizations, the highest costs are those associated with the time employees must be absent from their regular duties, especially if it is necessary to close down operations or pay substitute workers. Although the sum may look large, it can be more than offset by the savings in opportunity costs and improvements in shared knowledge and increased trust. If the participants invited by the organization sponsoring the event are not employees, but volunteers or stakeholders from diverse organizations, other questions about costs emerge. People who have modest incomes may not be able to come without compensation for missed time at work and may need help with other arrangements such as daycare.
Because Syntegration compresses meeting times and coordination, it incurs higher staff costs than some other group processes. A full Syntegration team delivery team is seven or more people. The organizer is the primary client contact and should be free to be available to the client at all times during the event. Four facilitators alternate facilitating team meetings with writing up their summaries. Two or three logisticians produce the paper output and organize related activities. If all or part of the event is to be recorded on video, or if reportage is part of the documentation, additional staff is required.
The smallest possible delivery team is two facilitators and one logistician, all of whom need to be qualified to train helpers as well as perform their own roles. Using this skeleton staff means that at least half the teams will be facilitated by people who have no direct experience of the process. Ironically, facilitating a Syntegration involves doing more while seeming to do less. Facilitators never make a contribution to the content of the discussions – that is strictly the job of the teams. They spend most of their time taking summary notes on flip charts. In addition, teams are prompted when it is time for critic input and statement writing. If the team’s process is not going smoothly, the facilitator normally lets them sort out their own problems and learn from them rather than intervening. If an intervention is made, it will probably be limited to asking the team if it is satisfied with its dynamics. Employees or volunteer facilitators, even if they have experience facilitating other formats, have sometimes found it difficult to stand back from the content and dynamics and to remain firm on the schedule and the protocol. Logistics suffers if it is short handed or if time must be spent showing people how to use the templates rather than turning information around in a timely fashion for the group.
The last place where costs are an issue is the facility charge. Not having a residential event saves money but limits the unstructured and social time the participants have eating all their meals together and chatting in the evening. Nor is there as much of a buffer between their normal job and home routines and possible interruptions. Non-profit organizations sometimes reduce costs still further by holding the event in low cost or borrowed space such as classrooms or church basements. Such facilities can be costly in other ways; if the space is being shared with other functions or provided as a favor, there is little or no possibility to make special arrangements to suit the needs of the event. Sometimes shared space must be vacated at different stages of the event. It detracts from the participants’ experience and the delivery team’s effectiveness if it is necessary to move from one room to another or to set up and tear down every day. Meeting in space that is cramped, noisy or has poor temperature control, restrictions on where food and drink may be consumed, poor access to copying machines and a shortage of electrical outlets all make it more difficult to use the participant’s valuable time most effectively.
Good facilities are important to a successful event. They do not need to be luxurious but should be in line with participant expectations. They should have sufficient room to hold the various stages of the event and plenty of wall space where post it notes, statements and flip chart paper may be taped or tacked up. If audio or video taping is to be done, sound and light levels need to be considered. Many potential problems can be avoided or compensated for if they are anticipated in advance. It is preferable if the sponsor’s and the participant’s expectations are realistic and that they are aware of the trade-offs that have been made.
Numbers of Participants
The number of participants is usually more of a constraint than a barrier. There are times when an organization, such as an association, is too large for a single event and does not have resources to accommodate multiple events. Sometimes, first come, first served is an appropriate means of selecting participants, but it may favor those who have regular schedules or those who are not on tight budgets. In some organizations, it is possible to have a delegate selection stage, or to issue invitations to a representative sample of people. If it is more important that everyone be included than that they have tightly integrated meetings a more flexible process such as Open Space Technology is a better choice.
At other times the number of people in a group, especially a work group, may be considerably less than thirty and they may have team building or confidentiality requirements that do not make including outsiders an attractive prospect. In such cases, Shortform events are preferable.
There has been considerable experience gained in customizing Syntegration events so that numbers can be varied but it is possible that one of the more elastic group processes would be a better choice when it is a stretch.
It is important that people be able to stay for the whole event. Although there have been events where people have had to leave in the middle or where they have been replaced by alternates, it does cause disruption. It is especially difficult for new members in a team to participate as fully, even if they read the materials that have been produced so far. Compromising on some substitution is sometimes necessary but it must be limited; e.g. a team can absorb the loss or replacement of one member but will flounder if more than one is involved.
Cultural and Structural Considerations
Sometimes those endeavors most in need of candid communication and mutual understanding find it most difficult to achieve. Organizational politics, reward systems that shoot their messengers or fail to penalize ego trips, fear of changes being made without consultation, and managers who are too busy to listen all make it difficult for people to meet and share their views honestly. In a Syntegration, there is a container that makes it difficult for individuals to dominate the whole group but people may carry baggage from their prior history and will be returning to their normal roles after the event. These environmental concerns apply to any group process but that doesn’t make them any less problematic.
Public/private groups are somewhat different. Although there may be people from many different organizations without direct reporting responsibility, there may be old rivalries and domination issues under the surface. If understanding technical information is part of the picture, the tightly integrated teams in a Syntegration might not be as useful. Future Search is one process where people meet according to community or professional groups for some sessions and integrate their perspectives at the end. In the Citizens’ Jury format, jurors are selected to be representative of the affected community on the basis of age, gender, employment status and so on. They hear presentations and ask questions of experts in the specialties affecting their decisions. The distinction here has to do with whether the tangible and technical information such experts bring is best mixed into the general discussion or dealt with separately.
The basic requirement is that the management of the sponsoring organization must reach consensus that they wish to hear what people have to say and that they are willing to acknowledge that circumstances are viewed differently from different perspectives.
Although “ Where you stand depends on where you sit” is far from a novel concept, in many circumstances it has little practical meaning. Furthermore, what people say must have some potential for influencing the situation. This is not to say that group participation processes should only be employed when they will have decision-making authority but it must mean more than going through the motions if it is not to lead to frustration.
If management does reach a consensus that they want to listen, then they must make several things clear. They must encourage people to brainstorm, or explore different avenues without having to underwrite them permanently. They must make a convincing case for the necessity to think out of the box to adapt to the changes they anticipate in their environments. Most importantly, it must be emphasized that reprisals against anyone who floats an unpopular position or speaks his or her mind will not be tolerated.
There are also some practical steps that can be taken. It may be stated at the outset that Shengen Rules apply. No opinions will be attributed to any individual and no written material other than that released by agreement will be retained. Outsiders, such as customers or consultants, may both open up the dialogue and diffuse rivalries. Sometimes discussions are freer if direct supervisors or top management are not present. Finally, the case for candor on which to base decisions about the future must be made strongly enough so that people share the belief that there is less risk speaking up than remaining silent.
Within the Syntegration protocol itself, it is possible to place more emphasis on the unsigned individual comments that are gathered at the outset in the Statements of Importance and to seek unsigned graffiti comments on team summaries. If the situation is tense, delivery team members may take the clusters of Statements of Importance to a flip chart themselves and invite small groups of participants to develop the idea whether or not they would champion it themselves. Sticky dots, rather than signatures, can be affixed to Aggregate Statements of Importance. It is also possible to move directly to an anonymous or semi-anonymous vote on which topics will be chosen for the Outcome Resolve as soon as obvious overlapping Aggregate Statements of Importance are combined. Although there are a number of circumstances where it may be preferable to assign team memberships at random rather than by using the preference algorithm, this is another way to avoid tying individuals closely to positions.
Process and Content
There is an analogy to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle that indicates that the extent to which you control the content of a group process determines the level of flexibility the process must have and vice versa. Syntegration puts no constraints on the content once the opening question has been decided, but it is a very rigorous process that runs on a tight schedule. Sometimes organizations will have either a mandate or a need to specify certain aspects of the content or it will be working within a task implementation framework. This is probably an indication that another process would be more appropriate. A special case would be a rollout Syntegration where the topics from one level are cascaded to other levels. In such cases, the topics from a national event might be replicated at divisional, state or local levels, or topics from the trenches might be discussed by the other levels supporting them with budget, staff or training.
Group processes such as Syntegration can make a very positive contribution to organizations, interorganizational groups and people coming together to pursue common goals. They do require considerable resources because they attempt to provide an opportunity to achieve requisite variety in a compressed timeframe. Compromises can and should be made on the logistics if it is a question of involving multiple stakeholders or staying with a narrow range of input but care should be taken not to apply so many constraints that the discussion will be squeezed.
Compromises are not possible in the values of openness and participation underlying these forms. During the event, everyone should have equal status and an equal opportunity to be heard. In these days when networking and sharing information has become more important than adherence to hierarchical for organizational well-being, participatory processes must be considered an available but so far underutilized resource.
Beer, S. (1994) Beyond Dispute John Wiley & Sons: Chichester, U.K.
Leonard, A. “Team Syntegrity: a new process for group work” European Management Journal Vol. 14 No 4 August 1996 pp. 407-413.
New Economics Foundation (1998) Participation Works: 21 techniques of community participation for the 21st century New Economics Foundation: London, U.K.
Owen, H. (1997) Open Space Technology Berrett-Koehler: San Francisco, U.S.A.
Truss, J., Cullen, C. and Leonard, A. “The Coherent Architecture of Team Syntegrity: from small to mega forms” in Proceedings of the 44th Conference of the International Society for Systems Science
Weisbord, M. and Janoff, S. (2000) Future Search, 2nd ed. Berrett-Koehler: San Francisco, U.S.A.