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According to Russell Ackoff, there are two thinking tools for developing an understanding of how existing socio-technical systems work: analysis (reductionism) and synthesis (constructionism). Since analysis is taught in school (and synthesis is not – except in the arts), analysis is a well known tool to problem solvers. Synthesis is not taught in schools because it’s hard to teach – it’s a less methodical and more metaphysical technique than analysis.

The UML state machine diagram below models the behavior of two different problem solvers – one that exclusively uses analysis and one that bounces non-deterministically between analysis and synthesis. Note that the purpose of entering and dwelling in the synthesis state is to learn the holistic “why” of a system – which always lies outside of the system.

The figure below shows a typical example trace of a synthanalyst problem solver’s behavior over time. Over each iteration toward a viable solution to the problem at hand, a synthanalyst dwells less and less in the synthesis state and more and more in the analysis state. The behavior trace for a one dimensional analyzer is not shown  because it’s trivial. It’s a boring and unadventurous flat line – one that self-smug managers trace out every day at work.

  1. May 29, 2011 at 9:36 am

    Hey Anthony! Good stuff. Ackoff is one of my favorite author.

    Sometimes, it’s easy to tell whether my time is being spent in synthesis or analysis. Other times, its pretty hard. For example, is analysis of the problem space analysis or synthesis? On one hand, it it analysis (understanding how the problem space behaves). On the other hand, it is synthesis, because I am trying to understand why my solution needs to be a particular way.

    Regardless of what it’s called, the payback from better understanding the problem hits diminishing returns much further out in time than many think, captured nicely by that old saying,

    “There’s never time to do it right, but there always seems to be enough time to do it over.”


    • May 29, 2011 at 10:36 am

      Thanks Charlie, and nice to hear from you again.

      Good points and questions to ponder. I think that searching around the problem space is predominantly a synthesis activity – because it’s looking outside of, and not directly within, the “mess”?

  2. May 29, 2011 at 11:17 am

    Then perhaps we’re not spending as decreasing amounts of time in synthesis as it seems? 🙂

    When I’m taking voltage measurements of laser output with a photodetector and trying to correlate pulse rate with joules of energy, am I analyzing my solution or trying to better understand Mother Nature? Tough to say.

    • May 29, 2011 at 11:36 am

      I’d say that you’re analyzing the results of an experiment while simultaneously trying to synthesize a new personal understanding of how mother nature works. But that’s just me and I profess no absolute knowledge of “the truth” 🙂

      Like good and bad, I really don’t think there’s a nice clean, straight line between where synthesis and analysis meet. It’s blurry and smudged – but I wanted to draw a state machine with two mutually exclusive states to model the difference.

  1. November 10, 2011 at 8:10 pm

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