“We are drowning in information while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”
– E.O. Wilson, American Biologist & Pulitzer Prize Winner
I vividly remember almost 20 years ago sitting 30 floors up in a conference room overlooking San Francisco’s Bay Bridge. As a new Business Analyst at Mercer Management Consulting, I was the cream of the crop, top of the 21-year-old career pyramid. I was proud of my labor over the previous 48 hours, having cranked out tons of analysis and dozens of charts. The partner on my project quickly flipped through my dozens of charts, looked up at me, and declared, “What the hell is all of this? Joe, give me the three insights from all this crap.” I was frozen, having just free fallen from the top of my pyramid with a massive figurative thud. All I could muster was, “Ummm, I don’t know…..” Then the project manager dove in covering me from any more mortar fire. After that embarrassing experience, I vowed never to be in that situation again, which drove me to embrace synthesis, which is one of the most difficult but important tools to learn when it comes to analysis.
What is synthesizing?
One of the core skills of strategic leaders is the ability to continually process data, facts, analysis, and conversations, and synthesize it all into insight. Whether it is synthesizing an analysis, a meeting, a discussion, or a situation, having your brain derive and prioritize insight from context is a critical skill that will always pay big dividends.
I can’t start any section called analytics, without first covering the concept of synthesis.
Remember those reading comprehension sections of those standardized tests we took every few years from about 3rd grade through high school? You read a few paragraphs about some random topic, and then there is the question, “What is the main takeaway from what you just read?” Your brain processes the answers and thinks through what you just read, and aha, you pick an answer, which hopefully is the right one. That is synthesis; combining ideas and facts and deriving higher-level meaning, understanding, and knowledge.
At McKinsey, synthesis was another top 5 word used in projects. “What is your synthesis of the analysis…your takeaway from the interviews…what have you learned so far?” Clients don’t pay McKinsey just to analyze stuff. Clients pay McKinsey to synthesize stuff into insight, knowledge, new perspectives, recommendations, and strategy.
How do you improve at synthesizing?
Your brain synthesizes, it takes facts, stimuli, and ideas, and creates meaning out of them. And, while analysis is the detailed examination of something, synthesis should always be the byproduct of analysis. Over time, there are many ways to improve your ability to synthesize, and here are some of the best tips:
Focus on the Purpose
There are many good reasons why McKinsey teams focus their efforts on solving the problem statement of a project, and one of those is that it provides a useful framing and focus for analysis. Before conducting an analysis, define what the purpose of the analysis is, and during the analysis, remind yourself of the purpose. Your mind will create takeaways and hypotheses from the analysis within the framing of the purpose.
Practice the “3 Takeaways”
One of the easiest ways to train your brain to synthesize is to constantly practice the “3 Takeaways”, which is simply, at the end of any analysis, meeting or conversation, think through and potentially verbalize, “Here are my three takeaways from this meeting…” You’ll not only help provide direction, but you will quickly improve your ability to synthesize. Over the past 20 years working in strategy, I’ve used this technique to master synthesizing brainstorming sessions, analysis, action items, and any other information that can be synthesized.
Constantly frame and reframe things
I’ve always found it extremely helpful to mentally process analysis, meetings, ideas, decisions, and conversations through a few framing questions, including:
o What are the implications for revenues, costs, and resources?
o What question are we trying to answer?
o Why is this potentially important?
o Is this a high priority or low priority?