Thoughts About the World of Synectics


By George M. Prince

At about the same time that Sullivan was publishing his theories about anxiety, Synectics was beginning. In 1958, I joined Bill Gordon as a member of the Invention Design Group at Arthur D. Little in Cambridge.

Shortly after I joined, one of the other groups at ADL asked us to fix a large Ampico tape recorder (we had the reputation, largely due to member Carl Marden, for being able to fix anything). Carl soon had the Ampico working in our shop. We were admiring it one day and Bill said, “You know, if we listened to our sessions it might settle some of our arguments about process. We might even learn something!”

We never returned the tape recorder and from that day we recorded every session we had. Later we switched to video when that became available, but I believe taping and reviewing our sessions gave us an understanding of the dynamics of climate in group work (field) that no one else had.

We discovered that there were a great many things going on in a session that reduced the probability of success, and we systematically addressed them, which helped make Synectics what it is today!

I won’t bore you with a list of the milestones, but a couple are interesting and significant. Perhaps the most important was the discovery of Discount/Revenge. This was a relatively invisible dynamic that has a great influence on thinking together.

About ten minutes into the session, one member jumped to his feet and said, “I think I’ve got it!” He waved a hand over the top of the sample Thermos bottle and said, “Suppose we took a thin sheet…”

Another member of the group, the only woman, interrupted to say, “That would be too expensive.”

We observers were puzzled: how could she know it would be too expensive if she did not know what the idea was?

We later replayed the videotape. Earlier in the session, when the group was organizing itself to work on the problem, we found the answer to her later behavior. The man who had offered the “thin sheet” idea had said to the woman “Your handwriting is probably good, so why don’t you be the note-taker for the group.”

She had perceived this as a discount, she told us, relegating her to be secretary of the group. She was aware of that, but her “revenge” reaction came as a surprise to her.)

Negative Reactions are Universal and Powerful

At the time, I thought her reaction was perhaps a reflection of immaturity; a more mature person would not be so affected by an unintended discount. However, as we began to pay close attention to anything that might be perceived as a discount, we discovered that the negative reaction was all but universal— regardless of age or position. Usually, there was some form of revenge, but on occasion, the discounted person simply withdrew from participation and support.

The next surprise was the great range of actions (or inactions) that were perceived as discounts. Any sort of slight or negative attention or lack of acknowledgment was enough to set the discount/revenge syndrome in motion. Given the unlimited opportunities for such unintended discounts in the everyday operations of businesses and other organizations, the extent of defensiveness and lack of commitment by employees is hardly surprising.

Another surprise was the power of the reactions. The response is totally disproportionate to the provocation, which is often (usually?) unintended (as in the example given earlier). When a person feels discounted, they do their best to conceal any sign of its impact. However, by slowing the videotape replay it is possible to observe minute changes in expression and physical attitude, and it becomes clear that something significant has happened. It is likely that their next participation will be adversarial to the offender, even if that is destructive to the purpose of the meeting.

The remarkable force of even small discounts may derive from an unconscious connection to the survival response of fight or flight. Physical threat engages fight or flight reaction; emotional threat engages revenge or withdrawal. In addition, the discount is experienced as an expression of power by the discounter over the person discounted, which threatens their autonomy. Psychologists tell us that this threat strikes at one’s fear of being meaningless and suffering annihilation. Whatever the reason, the force, and reliability of the discount response is impressive, once one is alerted to it.

What is now apparent from the brain research is that everyone is extremely sensitive to any slightest threat to meaningfulness. Now we know that our brains are hard-wired to react to any sign of disrespect with a defensive reaction. And now it appears that people get defensive even when there is no apparent threat.

Defensiveness is more important than is generally realized. For example, when a person gets bored, oppositional, or competitive, (We now believe these are defensive maneuvers triggered by anxiety from long ago abuse. I will go into this more when I get to the brain.) When he or she goes into a defensive maneuver, he or she is blocking the parts of her thinking that might be additive. This reduces the effectiveness of any collaborative effort.

This makes the climate or field of influence surrounding an activity critical if the members of the group are to keep themselves clear of defensiveness. It is clear that the way people treat each other is far more important than most had realized.

Two other places where we somehow figured out the right thing to do:

First, we originated the idea of using ‘Excursion’. This grew out of Bill’s conviction that metaphor was the key to all new learning. I hardly knew what a metaphor was, but took his word for it. We invented various forms of Excursion, and I am sure that all of you have invented some of your own.

But what we learn from the Quantum world is that all newness comes from chaos, where everything is disconnected and random and new connections can happen. It is clear from both brain research and psychology that chaos stirs large amounts of anxiety. Using Excursions, we were creating a ‘safe’ chaos.

We were never quite conscious of anxiety, but unconsciously, we added the practice of ‘Climate Setting’ to make adventurous thinking seem safer.

Second, came ‘wishing’. I wish Jo were here to keep me honest about the origin of wishing because she was there with me. We were training a group of support people from Filenes. They were not well-educated and when the facilitator asked for Goals, there was puzzlement. The Filenes manager of the department was sitting with Jo and me, watching the action. He said, “We could tell them setting goals is like wishing. They will get that.” Jo got up and went into the session room and introduced that idea, and the rest is history

What we did not know then, but Quantum Physics has discovered is that there is a force in the world called ‘Future Pull’. Wishing speaks directly to that. More about this later.

The point of this part of the story is that we of Synectics, because of the fortunate accident of using tape and videotape to study the action in groups, were able to see what was really going on when people were trying to work together closely. We paid attention and shaped our work to fit reality even though it sometimes seemed strange and awkward.

I can remember times when a client would say to me, “Look, my boss is going to be here today, so, please…no Excursions.”

Now we have some new realities being given to us by Quantum Physics and Brain research, influential things that are not obvious, plus some genius contributions by psychologists like Harry Stack Sullivan and Terrence Real.

Because we are already experienced in managing the climate or field of influence in our creativity and teamwork services, we may be able to take advantage of this new, emerging data.

If we can invent ways of doing this we will be able to increase the effectiveness of any group of people working together.

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