Effective teamwork is particularly important during complex change initiatives. Do you know how to develop synergistic teams?

This is the seventh in a series of articles focused on classic elements of change management content, updated and augmented with my own perspectives and experience. In the first post, Strategic Risk Factors, I have provided some of the history behind this series. The series is primarily written for change management practitioners, but I hope it will also be useful for others who are interested in making organizational changes more successful.

Today’s Focus: Synergy

I encountered the material on synergy presented here more than 25 years ago and continue to find it powerful today. Based on concepts introduced by Henry Nelson Wieman in his Creative Interchange process, the framework as presented here was articulated by Daryl Conner and Charles Palmgren. The material in the “Classic Model” section below is used with permission of Conner Partners (formerly ODR).


Synergy: Classic Model

Three Types of Working Relationships

The capacity of individuals or groups within an organization to apply resources (such as time, money, materials, and human energy) in an effort to work as a productive unit can be characterized in one of three ways:

1 + 1 < 2 or Self-destructive 

1 + 1 = 2 or Static 

1 + 1 > 2 or Synergistic

1 + 1 < 2 or Self-Destructive

This type of working relationship is one in which people interact in such a way that they consume excessive resources for the amount of benefit they generate for the organization. The result is a less productive output than might be expected if the same individuals worked independently.

For example, in some product-oriented organizations, the sales department and the production department spend an inordinate amount of resources protecting their “turf” from one another, miscommunication, and blaming each other. They resemble two competitors instead of two interrelated functions within the same system. Such working relationships are eventually self-destructive because the two persons and/or groups produce enough to compensate for the drain on resources it requires for them to work together. It costs more in resources for them to operate than they generate in output. They actually have a negative production level.

Constantly investing unreplenished resources into a draining work relationship often results in (a) rebellion from more productive parts of the organization that have generated excess resources and/or (b) a gradual exhaustion of all excess resources because of the parasitic nature of the relationship and its drain from the host organization. In either case, the eventual outcome is the termination of either those involved or the organization itself.

1 + 1 = 2 or Static

This type of working relationship is characterized by people interacting in such a way that they consume resources at about the same rate they contribute them back to the organization. The result is a productive output level equal to what would be expected when two or more people combine their efforts.

At first glance, there appears to be no problem with this type of relationship. The productive output is “normal” or what is expected when people work together. As long as the total environment in which they interact is essentially stable, a strong case can be made for this being the preferred method. In a stable environment, few changes affect the organization’s operation and it is possible to react to and deal with events that are predictable. When event “X” occurs, there is an automatic “Y” response from the components because their relationship is designed to function by means of predetermined operating procedures and/or policies.

In a stable climate, people working together at this level may be exactly what is needed; however, this is not the case in a turbulent environment. The problem, then, with this type of working relationship does not lie with the nature of its structure but with the presence of turbulence in the work environment.

A turbulent working environment is one in which changes affecting organizational operations occur, not only unexpectedly, but also at an ever-increasing rate. No aspect of an organization is immune to the effects of change once it occurs within the system’s boundaries. Regardless of its nature or origin, change has a rippling effect on the total organizational climate, with each change causing still further changes.

The rate of changes in the work environment over the last 40+ years has produced an exponentially accelerating cumulative effect on organizations. Today’s workforce must learn to plan for, react to, and cope with the impact of change, or their organizations will not survive. Learning the skills necessary for this requires an investment of time, money, energy, and other resources. Herein lies the problem: Static systems by definition do not generate resources beyond what is required to produce their product or provide their service. Adapting to unexpected change is a resource-consuming activity. Static working relationships have no reserves from which they can draw to meet the unanticipated demand.

Just as change impacts the environment at an accelerating rate, deficiencies in adaptive behavior also grow exponentially. People operating in static working relationships within turbulent environments experience larger and larger gaps in their defenses against the disruptive effects of change. Events that used to be manageable now seem unpredictable and confusing. The resulting disorientation consumes more and more resources as people attempt to regain their equilibrium. Since no excess exists, these resources must come from what was allocated for production. Thus, a destructive cycle is created that continues until the status of 1 + 1 = 2 degenerates into the 1 + 1 < 2, or self-destructive state.

1 + 1 > 2 or Synergistic

This type of working relationship is one in which people interact in such a way that they consume the fewest resources. The result is higher quantity and quality production output than might have been expected if the two involved had worked independently. This type of working relationship can also be characterized as the whole is greater than the sum of the parts or in the vernacular, “getting the biggest bang for the buck.”

The term used to describe this type of relationship is “synergistic,” derived from the Greek root “syn,” meaning together, and “ergo,” meaning “to work.” A synergistic relationship is one in which cooperative action results in a total effect greater than the sum of what each party could have produced independently. Simply stated, operating synergistically means effective “teamwork.”

Our world is full of synergistic examples. Iron and nickel each have certain characteristics that, when combined in a synergistic manner, are transformed into steel, a much stronger alloy than either element alone. In a marriage, if the relationship is a synergistic one, the similarities and differences each partner has with the other are merged into a complementary, mutually enhancing experience that generates fulfillment and growth beyond what was possible for either person alone. When championship football teams execute a play, they demonstrate what can happen by synergistically merging the skills of eleven individuals into a smoothly operating unit capable of performing far beyond what the team members could do independently. There are other examples in professional sports where championship teams composed of individual “no-name” players have operated synergistically and defeated teams that were a collection of nonsynergistic superstars.

Such relationships can exist in the work setting as well. For example, the sales and production departments mentioned earlier can synergistically combine their efforts so that the product is ordered, manufactured, and delivered in a more efficient and effective manner than if each department works independently of the other. Management teams can fuse the knowledge and skills of each member into an operating unit vastly more competent than a group functioning as a composite of individuals. The relationship between an employee and supervisor can be structured to blend the talents of both parties while compensating for each other’s weaknesses, yielding a highly productive work team.

People engaged in synergistic working relationships make optimal use of resources and free otherwise committed ones to achieve the all-important “excess” needed to manage change. The additional resources facilitate productivity and organizational competence. These resources create new options for organizations that were otherwise unavailable. An organization can reinvest into itself in order to accomplish its task more effectively. This type of organization can be more creative about how it operates, begin to develop and to offer new products or services, upgrade the competence of existing personnel, seek new people for expanding positions, and pay higher returns to investors.

Because of turbulence caused by a changing environment and the impact this has on the work setting, the most important benefit derived from synergistic work relationships may be the ability to invest in coping with change. Synergy does not grant individuals or work teams immunity from the stress of change. What it does provide is the optimal use of resources necessary to react to change sooner and more effectively, while sustaining high levels of productivity and performance.

Human synergy and its impact on an organization’s capacity to effectively manage a radically changing environment is the focus for the model introduced on the next page. Specifically, the model addresses how change sponsors, agents, and targets (referred to as the “implementation team”) can structure their working relationships to maximize the probability of successful change implementation.

A Model for Organizational Synergy

Synergistic relationships are generated through a four-fold process:  Interacting, Appreciative Understanding, Integrating, and Implementing.  This process is organic in nature. Each phase is interdependent on the others. Implementation team members must demonstrate the ability and willingness to operate according to the characteristics associated with each phase.

I. Interacting

In this first phase, team members surface diverse ideas and perspectives. This allows them to establish common change goals, acknowledge their interdependence, and communicate effectively.

Necessary Conditions:

Ability/willingness of team members to:

  • Clearly define and accept change goals and acknowledge interdependence regarding successful accomplishment of the change.
  • Effectively communicate to each other with directness, low distortion, and high congruence.
  • Actively listen to both the facts and feelings expressed in communication.
  • Communicate in a manner that generates trust and credibility with each other.

II. Appreciative Understanding

In this second phase, team members find value in the diverse ideas and perspectives of others. This allows them to develops a climate in which negative judgments are delayed, active empathy is demonstrated, and divergent perspectives are legitimized and valued.

Necessary Conditions:

Ability/willingness of team members to:

  • Create an open climate where differences can be surfaced appropriately.
  • Delay initial negative judgments about each other’s ideas, beliefs, feelings, attitudes, behavior, or concerns.
  • Actively empathize with each other and view the perspective of others as legitimate for them.
  • Value diversity and identify positive characteristics about each other’s viewpoint.

III. Integrating

In this third phase, team members combine diverse ideas and perspectives to generate creative solutions. This allows them to merge individual members’ viewpoints into a common perspective that can be supported by all.

Necessary Conditions:

Ability/willingness of team members to:

  • Tolerate ambiguity and be persistent in the struggle for new possibilities.
  • Modify their own views, beliefs, and behavior in order to support the team.
  • Generate creative ways of merging diverse perspectives into new, mutually supported alternatives.
  • Identify issues, concepts, etc., that cannot or should not be integrated.

IV. Implementing

In this fourth phase, team members effectively put their solutions into action. This allows them to channel synergistic energy into goal-directed, measurable action plans that reflect sensitivity toward individual members, the team, and the organization.

Necessary Conditions:

Ability/willingness of team members to:

  • Establish specific, measurable goals/ objectives/action plans regarding change implementation.
  • Monitor implementation progress and supply the necessary reinforcement to ensure success.
  • Implement the change at a speed and in a manner that respects the needs of all parties.
  • Modify the implementation plan (throughout the change process) to ensure its relevancy to current realities.

It has been our experience that ineffective team behavior is prevalent among implementation efforts. We believe that non-synergistic relationships are not the result of human nature, but instead of human habit; the difference is that habits can change. We present this process in the hope that it will serve as a way to identify current behavior that may be hindering implementation efforts and to develop new skills related to synergistic teamwork.


Synergy: Linda’s Commentary


When I first encountered this model, it was in the context of the MOC (Managing Organizational Change) methodology, one of the very first systematic approaches to executing change. We referred to synergy as the “soul” of MOC, because we could see that when sponsors, agents, and targets worked together in highly synergistic ways, truly amazing things could happen. I continue to find new insights as I use this model in practice.

There are some additional components of this model that were not included in the “classic” article I drew on for this post. They focus on the prerequisites for synergy—the conditions that need to be in place before people will invest the energy needed to yield truly synergistic outcomes. These include willingness to invest in synergy, which comes from the participants holding a shared goal and recognizing that they are interdependent in achieving that goal, and ability or opportunity to operate synergistically, which reflects the realities of organizational decision-making: unless decisions are open to input and team members carry genuine influence with one another, there’s no point in people putting energy into collaboration.

I visualize these prerequisites as creating a “container” or “crucible” in which synergy can take place: if the container is broken, it must first be mended and strengthened by ensuring that teams share common goals and recognize their interdependence, that decision-makers clearly identify situations in which teamwork is welcome, and that individuals bring genuine value to the table. Only then is it worth investing in the development of skills in deep listening, openness to other perspectives, tolerance for ambiguity, and creative collaboration that helps people excel at the four phases of the synergy process.

I’ve added one element to my own version of the model as well—diversity of inputs. Although it is implicit in the model, it seems worth calling out. A group of people who all think alike will probably not come up with ideas and solutions that represent true breakthroughs.

With those additions, I find this to be one of the most useful models in my toolkit for working with teams. If you would like to download an article that includes a more detailed summary of this model (including the prerequisites), you can do so here.

I have also developed an assessment tool that practitioners can use to diagnose the elements of team synergy; it’s proved very useful in focusing development efforts on the most important issues.

I’d like to close by encouraging you to dig more deeply into the Creative Interchange work that Dr. Charles Palmgren has done based on the material and concepts that were the original source of this model.


Please share your thoughts on this. Do you have examples of highly synergistic teams to share, or stories about how a lack of synergy blocked progress on a critical change? What approaches do you use to build team effectiveness?