The synthetic organization, part 1

pencil by Paul Worthington

I had dinner last night with my friend,
Mark Minie, who has a tremendous range of experience in immunology, high tech and biotech. While these are always wide ranging discussions last night’s had some special resonance (e.g. WBBA, indirect costs at the UW, the paradigm shifting activities of Craig Venter, the boundary moving work of WALL-E).

The confluence of these topics, along with a host of others, led me to reflect on the changes that will take place in organizations that are supposed to support and germinate creativity.

Industrial and academic approaches towards teaching, learning and understanding have been analytical for most of the last century – breaking complex processes down into simpler units and then working to understand them. These approaches have been very successful, producing many of the scientific advances we now enjoy.

But we are more and more entering a time where synthesis (the Greek words making up synthesis accurately describe just what it is) becomes paramount. Modern organizational approaches have not been as successful here, mainly because synthesis requires a social aspect that is often not supported in academia, or in much of industry, at least the biotech industry.

Analysis can be accomplished by a single lecturer talking to a large group, breaking down complex knowledge into bite-size bits for the students. Synthesis is almost the reverse, the bite-size portions are built back up, to be used by the group to create knowledge. Few academic organizations can accomplish this easily.

Venter, throughout most of his career, has taken synthetic approaches to solving scientific questions. Others were isolating single DNA fragments individually from entire genomes(some with genes and some without), laboriously determining where on the chromosome the sequence resided, then what the actual sequence was in detail and then trying to determine just what the sequence did, if anything.

Venter cloned large numbers of gene fragments directly, rapidly sequenced them, then used computer programs to put all the pieces together and went from there.

He built up his knowledge from many different, small pieces in order to understand. His shotgun approaches revolutionized the manner by which the human genome was characterized and still has ramifications today.

But his approach, putting the pieces together to determine the whole, was met with a lot of controversy. Synthesis was just not a model for doing biological research. His work, and that of many others who understood the importance of this approach, was disruptive and paradigm-shifting.

Most organizations are great at analysis but few seem to do synthesis well. Yet, many of the problems we face today (i.e. climate change, energy use, cancer therapies) are synthetic in nature (pun intended). How does one create an environment that fosters synthesis?

Pixar is an example. Harvard Business Online has a great article detailing just how different Pixar is from every other movie studio. It has been able to maintain its innovative culture and keep its creative talent from leaving, all while delivering nine hit movies in a row.

Read about Pixar and I will have more later…

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