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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Information Professionals, Habit 6: Synergize

Habit 6: Synergize

This is the last in a series of columns on Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and what they mean for information professionals. You may read all of this series at www.dmreview.com/authors/author_sub.cfm?authorID=30029.

Synergy, the sixth Habit, is very much like the musical term "ensemble," which means to play together as a single entity. Stephen Covey calls synergy the "essence of principle-centered leadership."1 I call synergy the essence of the effective information age organization. Peter Drucker describes the new leadership paradigm as the symphony orchestra model.2 Management can no longer lead organizations by managing up and down the business functions or the silo organization structures that end up competing with each other. Rather, management must lead the enterprise as a symphony orchestra conductor leads the symphony - as a whole, not as many different "silos" of musical specialists. In music, synergy is called "ensemble," meaning everyone plays "together" as a single whole, not as a group of prima donna soloists. This is synergy.


Synergy comes from two Greek words - the word for "work," and the word for "with" or "together." Thus, synergy means working with one another, together as a single whole. Synergy is the simple fact that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The habit of synergy is about how people work together to solve problems and to cooperate to accomplish the mission of the enterprise. Effective organizations have many different business areas with different specialized job functions and skill sets, but they work together in ways that complement each other and optimize the result. How do effective organizations perform their information work?

  • They recognize that information is not a proprietary, departmental resource, but an enterprise resource.
  • Information producers know who their information "customers" are and care about them so they capture all the information with the quality needed to effectively perform their jobs.
  • Information producers are able to provide high quality customer service to their information customers because the information customers themselves, and their own information producers, create quality information that they need to do their jobs effectively.
  • Managers work for goals that benefit the enterprise, not just their own department; for at the end of the day, there is only one profit or loss figure.
  • The executives at the top of the enterprise are leading their enterprise in the same way the symphony conductor leads the orchestra - as a single whole. They manage across the value chains to optimize them. Enlightened executives know there are no such things as "profit centers" and "cost centers." They know the perceived profit centers cannot make a "profit" without the services provided by the perceived cost centers. Therefore, they do not manage the functions as independent entities. Rather, they manage them as interdependent components of the various business value chains.
  • The performance measures reward synergistic teamwork that maximizes knowledge and information sharing for the good of all.

What good is it if Department A sells $1 million more than their quota for the month, but to do so they cut corners and do not capture vital information needed by Department B, thus costing Department B a $5 million loss in missed sales and information scrap and rework? What good is it if management increases claims processor productivity by 20 percent through turning off the edits so they can process claims faster if this causes overpayments to claimants and liabilities that result in losses ten times the amount of the "productivity" savings?

Synergistic Communication

Synergy relates to how we work together, whether performing our work in a larger value chain or solving problems as a team. Synergy requires empathetic listening (Habit 5) and beginning any activity with a win/win outcome goal (Habit 4).

There are three basic levels of communication based on levels of trust and cooperation:3

  • Defensive = Win/Lose or Lose/Lose outcome (low trust and cooperation)
  • Respectful = Compromise outcome (medium trust and cooperation)
  • Synergistic = Win/Win outcome (high trust and cooperation)

People who seek their own agenda exhibit defensive behavior and tend to be uncooperative and skeptical that an amicable "solution" can be reached. They typically operate out of a win/lose style, though some highly dependent people operate from a lose/win mind-set.
Often when cooperation results in a perceived "consensus" solution, the parties have not really achieved consensus. They have merely been respectful, and their "compromise" is a polite or politically correct decision. They have communicated politely - not empathetically. Compromise really means that 1 + 1 = 11/2.4 This result is only a low form of win/win.

Synergy comes when you recognize that there are not just two choices (mine and yours). By operating out of a trust relationship and with a cooperative spirit, we can think together outside the box, discovering new options that would have remained invisible otherwise.

Examples of Synergy

When I was the information management leader at a publishing firm, a conflict arose between the information management team and an application development team (surprise, surprise!) over the database design of a student course database file. This file maintained the student course records of customers who took self-study courses. We had designed the database following information integrity principles. However, the monthly transcript report application took nearly all of the nine hours of available overnight runtime as the number of student course transcript records grew. The application developers wanted to compromise the file design to allow the transcript file to duplicate the course title (that was kept one time in the course file) in the student course file. At the time, there were 110 course records and more than 4 million student course records. The 25 character-long course title was an inherent data element of the course record. The application team wanted to put the course title in the student course record so the application would not have to read the course record to reduce the runtime to produce transcripts. This "compromise," however, would have created integrity problems for the data - when a course title changed, the title had to be changed in every one of the student course records where that specific course was taken. This would also have added 100 megabytes to one of the faster growing files in a shared database. We brainstormed alternative options with the application team. We achieved synergy when we had open dialog about the pros and cons of various alternatives. The solution was fairly simple. We had the application read the 110 course records into an in-memory table so all the application had to do was read the student course records and match the course ID with the in-memory table and put the course title into the transcript report. Eureka. We accomplished both goals. The database integrity remained, and the application runtime decreased from 8 hours to 30 minutes.

A world-class oil production company illustrates synergy between information resource management and application development teams as well as between the information management and technology group and the business community. They created a statement of "information principles" that truly guides both their information and application development and their business process performance. In describing the value of their information policies, their CIO said the value is not in the words, but in the process of developing them. To this day, they exemplify the intelligent learning organization and synergy at a personal and organizational level.

One of my early clients had quality problems involving customer information. After they implemented a strong IQ (information quality) function, their IQ manager shared an example of synergy. Marketing desperately needed improvements in customer data. After conducting root cause analysis, they confirmed that the problems resided in the order entry process. The improvement team identified improvements in the order entry process and application. The order entry department manager resisted making the improvements. Marketing and order entry got together to try to reach a resolution. When marketing discovered that the resistance consisted of order entry not having the budget to make the improvement, the marketing director came up with a win/win - funding the improvements.

Field Force Analysis and Synergy

How do we enable synergy? Kurt Lewin, creator of "Force Field Analysis," helps us understand the dynamics of successful behavior change. The status quo of our behavior is held in a state of equilibrium by two sets of forces: those that "drive" us to change and those that "restrain" us from changing. Driving forces are those that motivate us to change and are generally positive forces that are reasonable, logical and economic. Restraining forces, on the other hand, tend to be negative, often emotional, illogical - though presented as logical - and are often social and psychological.

Any kind of behavioral change requires us to understand and address these opposing sets of forces. A most important lesson Lewin teaches is that increasing the driving forces is not enough to accomplish sustainable change. We must unfreeze and decrease the restraining forces that resist change.5 Otherwise, we push forward, only to be pushed back again and never really get anywhere.

Synergy is the Habit of multiplying value by taking the different parts and combining them in ways that create value greater, often far greater, than the sum of the parts. Synergy requires us to operate out of a win/win spirit (Habit 4) and listen empathetically (Habit 5) to others to truly understand their point of view and their concerns, and then to think creatively to possibly a third or fourth alternative beyond the two individual viewpoints. The results? Teamwork, ownership of the problems and the results, and significant increased value.

What do you think? Let me know at Larry.English@infoimpact.com


  1. Covey, Stephen. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989. p. 52.
  2. Drucker, Peter. The New Realities. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. p. 207.
  3. Covey, op cit, p. 270.
  4. Ibid., p. 271.
  5. Ibid., p. 280.

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