Synthesis Conversation : Conversation For Intent

Posted on by Brandon Klein

Synthesis means “putting together the parts so as to form a whole.” Typically, the DesignShop process involves many cycles of working the parts and developing synthesis; for example, at the end of DesignTeam reports, group discussion naturally tends to link the “pieces” and attempt to build a pattern of the whole. One of the facilitators’ tasks is moderate such discussions, allowing enough discussion while closing it off in time to allow DesignTeam work to advance the process and prevent participants from bringing the work to closure (i.e., deciding on a specific course of action) too early in the process. While a DesignShop may include several large group “synthesis” conversations, often there is a pivotal one in the transition from Focus to Act. It marks the shift from generating and assessing multiple options to defining and choosing an overall strategy, or small handful of alternate strategies, to be worked in detail during the “Engineering” Phase. Presumably, by this point in the process, certain ideas are emerging as strong and others have been largely abandoned; the “complete” solution is not yet clear, but the major issues that need to be reasoned through have been clearly identified, and tentative “solutions” worked. We talk of this transition as the “Insight” phase; often the task now is to weave together many partial insights and build the overall framework or pattern of a comprehensive solution. During a Synthesis Conversation, the facilitators help the group define their strategy or strategies; test it for completeness; and define the areas that most need to be worked further. As this often involves building a “solution” of some complexity, this session is typically wall scribed. Although the ideal is for the solution to become clear to all (true Insight!), the process is still open-ended; it is also the time for participants to take more control of the process. The facilitators’ role is to continually facilitate it as a design process: Is the answer that is emerging complete? Does it fit all the criteria of an effective and appropriate response? If there are major unanswered questions, what is the path to answering them? If one, two or three alternative strategies are each still strong, should each be worked further? If more than one solution fits, how does the group want to choose? If one strategy is strongest, what parts should be worked next? Which participants should work which issues?

To put together the parts and build the “picture” of the whole. To choose the course for the next phase of work.

An extensive synthesis module is usually a key part of the Focus phase of the process. The time required is highly variable; sometimes it all comes together in an hour; at other times, this is when the process gets into the nitty-gritty, and a much longer process is required.

Strengths — Collaborative: brings all participants together to “pool” their insights, understandings and concerns. Complete: weaves together all the preceding work. Necessary: how else would you do it, anyway? Weaknesses — May result in a long debate of unresolved issues. Requires skillful facilitation. Specifications for Success — 1. As noted above, don’t try to facilitate a decision; facilitate a design process: the only required outcome is clarity about the next steps in the process.