In his consulting engagements, Les McKeown has worked with many successful companies. He has identified the stages that all companies will travel through on their road to success and as a consequence has identified that the basic difference between an ineffective group interaction and a highly productive one lies in the existence of a single component—a natural, uncomplicated, and easily introduced component—the role of the Synergist. Stick around for the next ten minutes while we summarise why your organisation may need “The Synergist”.
Before we embark on identifying the Synergist, let’s first look at the three natural styles or roles that all of us default to when we are in a group or team situation.
The 3 Styles
Visionaries are big-thinkers turned on by ideas. They are easily bored with minutiae and need to create and to achieve. Visionaries are often charismatic, engaging communicators, able to motivate people to bring their best to every endeavor.
The Visionary’s active mode occurs when they’re in a creative phase, which can last for an hour or two, or for days on end, depending on the object of their attention. During this time they contribute generously with ideas, direction, and problem-solving, display great energy, and are usually gregarious and fun to work with.
A Visionary in active mode will automatically assume that whatever they’re engaged in at that point is of vital importance: vital for them, vital for the organization, and vital for anyone else who happens to be passing. As a result, being around Visionaries in active mode can feel like being close to a whirlwind.
When in idle mode, a Visionary becomes gregarious—they will walk around a lot, stopping in on folk to talk about whatever comes to mind; they’ll go to conferences and workshops (or any social activity)—anything to meet other people and get new ideas.
The second natural style that people in group or team situations default to is the Processor.
Processors have an inbuilt desire to bring order to any situation. They focus not only on what they’ve been asked to do, but also on the underlying systems and processes that will make doing it more consistent and repeatable. Processors are highly rational and analytical by nature, and they think in a logical, sequential way, preferring to arrive at an objective assessment of the facts rather than trusting to emotion and judgment.
Tasked with jobs that require accuracy, Processors find it perplexing when others don’t respect that need for precision—especially when they depend upon that input to do their job right.
Linked to the Processors’ need for order is their aversion to risk. The key reason for introducing systems and processes is, after all, to minimize the risk of something going wrong in the future. Consequently, processors can become so preoccupied with “doing the thing right” at the expense of “doing the right thing” that they lose sight of the organization’s overall business needs.
The Processor possesses two skills, neither of which comes easily to the Visionary or Operator: fluency in data analysis, and proficiency in the design of systems and processes. More precise than experience and considered more accurate than judgment, data is the currency of the Processor.
Processors often find it hard to respond swiftly. This reluctance on the part of the Processor to reach a conclusion until all the data is in frustrates the rest of the team who need to make a decision, and it often leads to an attempt at compromise.
Operators are the doers in any enterprise—they’re the practical-minded folks that get stuff done. Operators work best alongside Visionaries, and in a sense, they’re mutually dependent.
Operators will devise their own processes—usually relatively straightforward and always highly practicable. Consequently their own processes often have a semi-unofficial, underground status—detached from the rest of the organization, certainly not approved, but overlooked so long as they get the job done.
An Operator doesn’t mind being told what to do (they prefer a clear-cut set of directives to a blank sheet of paper), but they don’t like to be told how to do it.
As a result of working at runway level and interacting at the front line of the organization, the Operator has a more accurate view of what’s possible in the real world and because they are already so busy, an Operator is also more likely than the others to raise the question of capacity: “We can’t do everything. If this is important enough to do, what are we going to drop to make room for it?”
An Operator’s weaknesses mostly arise from two character traits: a maverick streak that impels them to work consistently outside whatever parameters are set for them, and a compulsion to speedy completion. As a consequence, an Operator’s activities are hard to transfer to someone else. If an Operator is unavailable for a time or moves on to another job, it is almost impossible for their unlucky successors to understand all of the moving parts they inherit.
Three Key Principles:
Recognise yourself or your colleagues in any of the above descriptions? It wouldn’t surprise me.
The first key principle to understand is that all of us have a bias toward acting as a Visionary, an Operator, or a Processor. In fact most of us are a combination of two styles—one strong suit and one secondary.
The second key principle is that the V-O-P triangle is an innately unstable one. This is because Visionaries, Operators, and Processors each achieve a sense of fulfilment or satisfaction in very different, often competing ways.
In essence, the Visionary, Operator, and Processor each have a different “default goal”—a different underlying trigger for when something is done or complete—which in turn dictates how they each respond in group situations.
A Visionary can feel fulfilled by just the very act of creation, a Processor, meanwhile, needs to document and categorize the new idea or fresh insight. Operators, frustrated at being co-opted in the first place when all they want to do is go outside and get stuff done, don’t even want to be on the team! The unavoidable outcome of this V-O-P instability is that, left to itself, every group or team will eventually implode, gridlock, or underperform.
The third key principle is that to avoid this fate, and to produce a high-performing group or team, a fourth, learned style—that of the Synergist—must be added to the mix.
Introducing the Synergist:
The Synergist is the missing link that transforms the two-dimensional V-O-P group into a truly three-dimensional team. It does this by enriching and transforming the interaction between the Visionary, Operator and Processor.
The key defining characteristic of the Synergist style is that unlike the Visionary, Operator, and Processor styles—which focus primarily on the desires and preferences of the individuals themselves—the Synergist is focused primarily on what is best for the enterprise (the organization, department, division, project, group, or team).
What Synergists Do:
Synergists Regulate: The Synergist’s first, and arguably most important, job is to regulate the range of characteristics within which the Visionary, Operator, and Processor operate, allowing them to flourish in their roles without straying into the red zone of unhelpful extremes of behavior.
Synergists Resolve: With the Synergist on the scene, this dynamic changes. With a fourth perspective based primarily on the good of the organization as a whole, what was previously insoluble becomes resolvable. Resolution is made possible by unshackling theV-O-P from their style-driven agendas. The role of the Synergist is to bring that fourth perspective, and use it to resolve differences.
Synergists Interpret: Synergists act as minesweepers, scanning for potential communication hazards on the horizon and defusing them where possible. They interpret the Visionary’s, Operator’s, and Processor’s languages, and clear up misunderstandings when they occur.
Synergists Choreograph: From their elevated position on the balcony, the Synergist is perfectly placed to help the Visionary, Operator, and Processor choreograph their interactions for best effect.
Synergists Connect: Because they are focused primarily on what’s best for the enterprise as a whole, the Synergist can act more as an interested observer and less as an invested participant. They can draw out what is needed from each participant in an agenda-neutral manner, without reigniting any of the conflicts that would arise if the V-O-P team tried to do so alone.
Synergists Harmonise: The Synergist alone is able to facilitate a conflation of the Visionary, Operator, and Processor ideas into one harmonized whole. The Synergist style emerges throughout the team at this stage in the interaction, informing and directing their actions in a way that produces a unified, harmonized result.
How Synergists Help in Each Stage of a Company
Aligning to McKeown’s earlier book, “Predictable Success”, here is how a Synergist could assist in optimising success at each stage in the lifecycle of a company.
It feels like you’re hacking through the jungle, as you fight to keep your newly-born organization alive. The main challenges are making sure there is enough cash to keep going, until, you’ve clearly established that there is a market for your product or service.
At this point, the Visionary usually operates alone. Because it’s their vision that they’re pursuing, the Visionary can find the passion and reserves of strength necessary to hack through the jungle in search of a profitable, sustainable market, and the resilience to cope with the many setbacks the new business will face—including the constant search for additional sources of funding to keep the business alive.
You’ve broken through the Early Struggle—you have cash (at least enough to take the pressure off), and an established market: it’s time to have Fun! Now you’re free to concentrate on getting your product or service into the market, so the key focus now moves from cash to sales.
Once there is any real detail to be attended to (which can be right from Day One), Visionaries need an Operator on board. This combination of Visionary and Operator is extremely powerful, as the Visionary’s breadth of vision, enthusiasm, risk-taking, and creativity melds with the Operator’s relentless task-focused attention to detail to produce a highly flexible, responsive, effective team.
The very success that you reaped in Fun brings with it the seeds of Whitewater: your organization becomes complex, and the key emphasis shifts once more—from sales to profitability. Achieving sustained profitable growth requires you to put in place consistent processes, policies and systems. Unfortunately, putting those systems in place proves harder than you expected. The organization seems to be going through an identity crisis, and you may even doubt your leadership and management skills.
As the business grows and becomes more complex, the organic team for the first time recognizes the need to add the Processor style at a senior level. At this point, all of the V-O-P conflicts and tensions emerge. When this happens, the Processor is usually blamed. As the V-O-P gridlock intensifies, often the Visionary and Operator will marginalize or fire the Processor in frustration, believing that the P’s removal will take the business back to the Fun stage.
You’ve developed a team that has successfully navigated your organization through Whitewater. Here, you can set (and consistently achieve) your goals and objectives with a consistent, predictable degree of success. In Predictable Success you know why you are successful, and you can use that information to sustain growth in the long term.
In order to break through to Predictable Success the organic team has adapted to its prime state—a Synergistic team working in a state of flow with all four styles represented and active. Most organizations arrive at this stage through a protracted, painful process of trial and error, with many of the participants bruised—in fact, during the transition through Whitewater they may well have lost some top performers along the way.
No matter where you find yourself in the life of your organization, a Synergist can help take you to the next level. And you can become a synergist yourself, if you are willing to put in the work.