“Get the habit of analysis — analysis will in time enable synthesis to become your habit of mind.” — Frank Lloyd Wright
Synthesis is a powerful way to distill information. You can boil down ideas and communicate the key take away. You can take a few ideas and combine them to form something new.
To bottom line it, you can use synthesis to turn insight into action.
But how do you synthesize information in a repeatable way?
The key is to lead with your action-oriented conclusion. This is especially powerful if you are an analytical type and have trouble communicating the value of what you know or what you’ve learned. Sure you could lay out all the parts on the table and hope somebody puts them together. Sure you could recap everything you learned and hope somebody gets the point. Or, you could synthesize it, and lead with your conclusion, and elaborate as needed.
In the book, Case Interview Secrets: A Former McKinsey Interviwer Reveals How To Get Multiple Job Offers in Consulting, Victor Cheng teaches us a formula we can use for synthesis. According to Cheng, Synthesis enables us to communicate in a way that is “concise, integrates detailed analysis of the big picture, and is action-oriented.”
Side note — I bought Case Interview Secrets, so that I could learn how to think like a McKinsey consultant. I’m a fan of studying the best-of-the-best, and I wanted to really learn business thinking skills in a much deeper and real-world way. I thought I could use this in two ways — both to improve my value at work to others, but also to improve my value to myself. For example, when I run into significant business challenges, I’d like to be able to put on my McKinsey hat and call upon my skills. Interestingly I learned far more about presence and executive thinking skills than I expected in the book, as well as new business frameworks and business skills that I can use on a daily basis.
What is Synthesis
Here is what Cheng says about synthesis:
- “Synthesis in simple terms is a way to summarize progress.”
- “Tells the client what to do. “
- “Tells the client what you discovered and what it means.”
- “Couches your recommendation in the context of the overall business, not just in terms of the single decision your client asked you to assess.”
Keep in mind that Cheng is coming from a consulting perspective.
Communication Structure of Synthesis
Here is how Cheng explains to communicate your synthesis:
“State action-oriented recommendation / conclusion”
- “Supporting point 1.”
- “Supporting point 2”
- “Supporting point 3”
“Restate recommendation / conclusion”
Example of Synthesis
Cheng provides a simple example to illustrate synthesis:
“My vacation was lousy for three reasons:”
- “I missed the plane and thus the cruise ship.”
- “I broke my leg and was confined to a wheel chair.”
- “I paid $3,000 in medical bills for the privilege of watching others have fun.”
“Those are the three reasons why my vacation was lousy.”
The opposite would have been to start with the details, describe the process, and eventually lead up to a conclusion about how your vacation didn’t go so great. Synthesis jumps to the punch-line, and jumps from talking about the parts, to talking about the whole. Obviously, there’s a time and a place for synthesis, and in other cases, it’s a good idea to slow down and take somebody through your journey, if they have the time and appetite for it.
The Opposite of Synthesis
Cheng provides an example of the opposite of synthesis which is simply listing out the details:
- “What I learned #1”
- “What I learned #2”
- “What I learned #3”
- “What I learned #4”
- “What I learned #5”
I learned to synthesize long ago. My learning moment was when I was in an executive review, and each time I was called upon, I provided details to support a conclusion. Multiple times throughout the conversation, the exec asked me things like, “What’s your point?”, or “What’s your recommendation?” After the exec review, one of my mentors gave me very specific and actionable feedback. He said, answer the question asked. Make it to the point. Don’t elaborate unless asked to do so. Rather than simply recap or sum up my information, this forced me to practice synthesizing and distilling it.
Now, synthesis is second nature for me, but I like Victor Cheng’s structure of “state your conclusion, support your point, and restate your conclusion”, so I’ll be adding that to my repertoire.