It was yet another virtual meeting during the pandemic. I was talking to a fellow owner of a small engineering firm about working together on a project. The more we talked, the better the fit seemed. As we were summing up, I said, “There is some good synergy here.” Boom, all the air was sucked from the virtual room. I had gleefully tossed out the buzzword everyone has grown to hate: SYNERGY.
In business, synergy takes many forms, and the calculus can get very complicated. Another good example is you have two accounts payable (AP) people and one for accounts receivable (AR). The AP team gets their work done by Thursday. But the AR person is overwhelmed and just can’t get their job done. If you combine the teams such that AP helps AR, both are done on time. Synergy. Wonderful in theory.
Why everyone hates it
Most buzzwords deserve scorn because they are hollow and without meaning. People throw them about because they are trending. Synergy, however, has gained a special status because the promise of synergy is rarely realized. It is a mythical beast in most organizations, and often, when things are combined, the situation gets worse.
Add what’s missing
This is because synergy is not magic. One plus one never equals three. Math is math. You have to add something else to the equation to achieve a greater sum. In the example above, I mention getting two workers to work together to make more widgets. Working together is not what makes synergy happen. The “develop a process where they assist each other” is where that extra bit gets added that produces the higher sum.
I learned about the missing extra term the hard way. When we founded PADT, we established a guiding philosophy that included “Synergistically combine disciplines.” Our business model was to combine three different fields of computer-aided engineering to deliver increased value. We put it in our vision statement and expected it to just happen. It didn’t. We had to establish habits, work on communication, and develop processes. Constant energy is needed to make synergy happen.
I’m not giving up on this buzzword. Like anyone in business, I’ve seen it fail. But I’ve also seen it work. If you recognize the extra effort required to make the magic math happen, it can be well worth being on the receiving end of an eye roll or two.
Eric Miller is co-owner and principal of Tempe-based PADT Inc.
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